Associated Press

Mississippi’s House Republican Caucus does not have to meet in the open, the state Ethics Commission ruled last Wednesday, December 14, clearing the way for the Republican majority to keep formulating policy and tactics behind closed doors.

The commission voted 5-3 to approve the order, after taking a similar vote earlier this month. It found that the group is not a “public body” that is subject to the state’s open meeting law, although its 77 members make up a supermajority of the House’s 122 seats.

Those who argue that the meetings should be open say such actions are the core of the kind of public business the law requires to be done in public. Republicans, though, say political caucuses should be able to meet in private.

The state’s open meeting law does apply to legislative committee meetings, although committee meetings and floor proceedings sometimes have only limited debate and discussion of bills.

The staff of the Ethics Commission, led by longtime executive director Tom Hood, had recommended that the commission should find the Mississippi House of Representatives is a “public body” as defined in the Open Meetings Act and require the caucus meetings to be open.

Commissioners disagreed, noting that legislative committees are already covered by the act. They also noted that the Mississippi Constitution states that any time a majority of the House is present and discussing legislative business, that means a quorum is present.

“The doors of each house, when in session, or in the committee of the whole, shall be kept open, except in cases which may require secrecy,” the constitution states.

Challengers say closed caucus meetings mean the required open meetings that follow will just be formalities, with the real decisions made behind closed doors, and the speaker and lieutenant governor taking even more control.

House Republicans have maintained tight discipline on most issues since taking the majority in 2012.

The Senate Republican Caucus has not held closed-door meetings out of concern that such meetings might violate the law.

The Legislature is also exempt from the state’s open records law, meaning members of the public cannot request emails or other correspondence sent or received by lawmakers.