Ethics Commission to decide if House GOP Caucus meetings are illegal
Published 4:00 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2022
A state senator has formally asked the Mississippi Ethics Commission to decide whether House Republican Caucus meetings — the closed-door, secretive Capitol gatherings that are open only to 77 Republicans in the House of Representatives — violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.
The House Republican Caucus meetings, which have been convened regularly since Philip Gunn became Speaker of the House in 2012, are the subject of close scrutiny by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers this session as House and Senate leaders battle over major tax proposals.
Earlier this week, Mississippi Today chronicled what occurs inside the meetings that are closed to the public and the press. Major pieces of legislation authored or supported by Republican leaders including Gunn are often discussed and debated inside the backroom meetings.
Those deliberations often mean lawmakers will ask few or no questions during public committee meetings and on the House floor. In caucus meetings in recent years under Gunn’s leadership, Republican members have been asked to vote on specific bills, several lawmakers told Mississippi Today.
The meetings had never been challenged before the Ethics Commission or state courts. But several past opinions — including a 2017 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling — indicate the meetings could be illegal because the House Republican Caucus represents much more than a majority of the entire House of Representatives and is deliberating public policy in private.
Sen. Sollie Norwood, a Democrat from Jackson, requested an opinion from the Ethics Commission on March 4 about whether the House Republican Caucus meetings violate the Open Meetings Act.
“The request is meant to clear up concerns with a process that has been at best misused,” Norwood told Mississippi Today on Monday evening. “It is not a partisan issue. It seeks clarity on the confines of an open, deliberate process regarding how public policy should be considered at various levels of government.”
(Note: Norwood’s letter to the Ethics Commission can be found at the bottom of this post.)
If the Ethics Commission opines that the caucus meetings are illegal, it could categorically change the way Gunn governs the House of Representatives. House leaders also use a mobile app to communicate with the entire House Republican Caucus, though the app is not typically used to deliberate legislation out of public view.
Several House Republicans told Mississippi Today that Gunn sometimes uses the caucus meetings to strong-arm rank-and-file lawmakers into supporting bills he finds favorable. Many at the Capitol have questioned whether the meetings violate Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act.
Gunn’s staff maintains that the House Republican Caucus is not obligated to adhere to the Open Meetings Act because it is not a “public body,” as defined by state law.
“The House Republican Caucus is not a public body under the Open Meetings Act,” said Emily Simmons, Gunn’s communications director. Trey Dellinger, Gunn’s chief of staff, shared the same justification with Mississippi Today.
Senate leaders do not agree. When Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann became lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Senate in 2020, second-term Republican state Sen. Mike Seymour inquired whether caucus meetings were legal under the Open Meetings Act. After Senate staff did some research, Hosemann decided that he would not convene Senate Republican Caucus meetings because the staff advised him the meetings could very likely violate the Open Meetings Act.
Anyone can file a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission if they believe transparency laws are being violated. But the commission typically expedites requests made by lawmakers. It has been 18 days since Norwood filed the request for an opinion, and the commission has not yet issued a ruling.
The Ethics Commission is an eight-member body appointed to four-year terms by the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, and chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Several members of the commission have close ties to the state’s political apparatus or the officials who appointed them. Spencer Ritchie, appointed to the commission in 2018 by then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, was executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party for more than two years.
Erin Lane, a Butler Snow attorney appointed to the commission in 2020 by now-Gov. Reeves, is the wife of one of Reeves’ closest friends, college fraternity brother and campaign donor Colby Lane.
Hosemann appointed Ben Stone, a Republican donor and longtime friend of Hosemann’s, to the Ethics Commission in 2021. Stone has been reappointed to the commission by every lieutenant governor since 1981.
One of Gunn’s two appointees currently sitting on the Ethics Commission is Sean Milner, who is president of the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village. Milner and Gunn have both been leaders at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton. It is unclear whether Milner will recuse himself from the commission’s deliberations of Norwood’s opinion request regarding Gunn’s private meetings.
Sen. Norwood’s letter:
Director Hood: I am writing to request an advisory opinion pertaining to standards of conduct for members of the legislature. Please issue guidance regarding the following items.
Do legislators violate the Mississippi Open Meetings Act (Miss. Code. Ann. §§ 25-41-1 through 24-41-17) when a majority of members of either the House or Senate assemble in a closed meeting without providing public notice to: (a) discuss the business of the body including legislation that will appear before the full chamber or (b) to take “straw polls” to determine whether to bring certain matters before the full body?
Is it lawful for a political caucus that represents a majority in a legislative chamber to exclude from its meetings any member of that chamber when business of the full body is discussed or decided during that caucus meeting?
Thank you for your prompt consideration of these matters.
Senator Sollie B. Norwood
Story by Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today