Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal ruling would allow closed door meetings, in conflict with Gov. Edwards’ emergency order on the coronavirus pandemic requiring meetings to be open to the public
New Orleans, LA, March 24, 2020 -- The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has brought greater attention to how Louisiana officials will make decisions on critical issues. However, the state now has two conflicting directives on how to do this.
In response to the state ranking near the top for the highest number of confirmed cases, which triggered a "Stay at Home" order, Governor Edwards directed state and local officials to arrange public meetings that are essential in this time of emergency by teleconference or video conference. According to this emergency order issued on March 16, 2020, "[a]ll efforts shall be made to provide for observation and input by members of the public."
In contrast, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal issued a decision on February 12, 2020 that would allow governmental committees to make their decisions behind closed doors. The Fourth Circuit's jurisdiction includes Orleans Parish, which has more than half of the confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the state. The decision would allow governmental officials in the appeal court's jurisdiction of Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes to violate the Open Meetings Law with impunity on a wide range of issues.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision reversed a lower court judgment that threw out the New Orleans City Council's approval of the Entergy gas plant in New Orleans East. The case involves the scandal of Entergy using paid actors to support the gas plant at City Council meetings, where residents were prevented from attending and speaking. Under the Open Meetings Law, a court can void an action, such as a vote, taken at a meeting where a violation occurs. In its reversal, the Fourth Circuit recognized that the Open Meetings Law was violated, but did not view the lower court had the authority to void the City Council's approval. Local organizations and residents who were denied the opportunity to speak at the City Council meetings filed a writ application to the Louisiana Supreme Court seeking review of the Fourth Circuit's decision.
On Friday, March 20, 2020, ten public interest organizations, who are not parties to the Open Meetings Law case, filed an amicus ("friend of the court") brief with the Louisiana Supreme Court in support of the writ application. The organizations include the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, NAACP New Orleans, VOTE, and Committee for a Better New Orleans. Their amicus brief condemns the Fourth Circuit's decision for undermining important protections under the Open Meetings Law that have long been established. The organizations are represented by attorney Max Ciolino.
Rosalind Cook, President of the Board, League of Women Voters of New Orleans: "We call on the Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court to reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision because it is fundamentally unfair to the people who have the right under the Louisiana Constitution and the Open Meetings Law to observe and make comments at public meetings."
Ronald Coleman, President of the NAACP-New Orleans Branch: "A court decision that removes the legal remedy for clear violations of the Open Meetings Law sends the message that a closed-door, secret meeting is okay. It is not. The NAACP’s fight for civil rights, voting rights and democratic participation continues. We will not sit idly by while the right of people to be heard is under attack."
Darilyn Turner, Executive Director, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center: "The Fourth Circuit’s decision would give people in Plaquemines Parish, where I live, fewer protections under the Open Meetings Law than people in Jefferson Parish and other parts of the state in the jurisdictions of other appeal courts. We are urging the Louisiana Supreme Court to stop this injustice."
Norris Henderson, Founder and Executive Director, VOTE: "There would be no criminal justice reform in Louisiana without the direct participation of the people. The Fourth Circuit’s decision would cut off opportunities for people to not only shift power and transform policy, but deny us the right to hold public officials accountable for a violation of the Open Meetings Law."
Jordan Sacks, Director, Mid City Neighborhood Organization: 'The Mid-City Neighborhood Organization joins as a signatory to this Amici Curiae Brief for the following purpose: In addition to our staunch and continued opposition to the construction of this power plant, we find the Fourth Circuit's ruling to conflict directly with our efforts as an organization to promote civic engagement and governmental transparency. We believe the decision to allow our city government to literally close the door on the people whom they govern removes the oversight and input of the electorate, stifling democracy. We believe removing the public's right to hear, attend, and voice concerns in committee meetings only further marginalizes those who are already under-represented. It is our position that we hold a duty to seek a reversal of the Fourth Circuit's decision for these reasons."
Logan Burke, Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Energy: "Even in the face of a global pandemic our Governor saw fit to insist that our Open Meetings Law not be suspended and that the public's right to observe and comment is preserved. He clearly gets that we don't have a democracy without public participation. I hope the Louisiana Supreme Court sends a clear message that neither the City Council nor any other public body can get away with trampling on our rights."
Andreanecia Morris, Chair, Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance: "Our work to solve the affordable housing crisis in New Orleans focuses on helping residents to participate in and inform housing policy. While many public bodies do not follow the spirit of the Open Meetings Law when they hold meetings at inconvenient times, or fail to make materials easily accessible and understandable, our right to participate is at least guaranteed by the current interpretation of the Open Meeting Law. We are deeply disturbed that the Fourth Circuit would misinterpret this law in a way that takes away the remedy for a violation."
Keith Twitchell, President, Committee for A Better New Orleans: "The business of government is conducted for the people it serves, and to the highest degree possible, should be conducted in view of the public and with every opportunity for input from the public. The Committee for a Better New Orleans believes that Louisiana public meeting laws absolutely do apply to committees of the New Orleans City Council, as well they should. No court should ever come between the necessary partnership between residents and government. No city can thrive without this full partnership, and we should all be seeking to expand it, not contract it."
Jane Patton, Director, No Waste Louisiana: "The success of No Waste Louisiana's mission depends on public advocacy and legislator education. This advocacy relies on access to our elected representatives and an opportunity for input throughout their decision making process. By ruling that committees of the New Orleans City Council are allowed to make decisions behind closed doors, our individual constitutional rights are being threatened, and No Waste Louisiana's ability to advocate for sensible waste prevention policies is jeopardized."
The organizations that filed the amicus brief are as follows:
Alliance for Affordable Energy
Committee for a Better New Orleans
Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance
League of Women Voters of New Orleans
MidCity Neighborhood Association
NAACP - New Orleans
No Waste Louisiana
Zion Travelers Cooperative Center
Click to download the amicus brief
The organizations that sued the New Orleans City Council for violations of the Open Meetings Law are as follows:
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans
Green Justice Legal
Justice & Beyond
VAYLA New Orleans
350 New Orleans
Click to read the Writ Application
Collection of writings from Public Interest Intervenors DSCEJ, AAE, Sierra Club, 350 NOLA, and VAYLA.