Chairman Barry Usher, R-Roundup, presides over a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 6, 2021 Credit: Austin Amestoy / UM Legislative News Service

Lewis & Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan today dismissed a lawsuit filed by multiple Montana media organizations against House Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher. 

The media organizations’ complaint alleged that Usher violated the public’s constitutional right to know and state open-meeting laws by closing a discussion among Republican committee members to Montana Free Press reporter Mara Silvers. Usher’s motion to dismiss the case argued that the Jan. 21 discussion, which took place during a recess of a House Judiciary Committee meeting, did not satisfy the statutory definition of “meeting” because attendance was intentionally limited to eight or nine committee members — a majority of the majority-Republican membership of the committee, but too few to constitute a quorum of the 19-member committee as a whole. 

Menahan agreed, writing in his decision that “The Court is unwilling to redefine ‘quorum’ as ‘a majority of a majority.’ In this case, the eight or nine legislators who gathered in the Capitol basement did not constitute a quorum of the committee, hence no ‘meeting’ occurred.”

Usher released a statement Friday applauding the decision, saying in full: “I’m a big supporter of the public’s right to observe what its government is doing. Montana’s constitution and state law spell out what is and isn’t a meeting that’s open to the public. I’m glad to see the court agree with the very clear fact that a fraction of a quorum is not a quorum and the members of my committee talking together followed Montana law.” 

The Jan. 21 recess gathering was convened to privately discuss legislation about abortion and transgender health care prior to a committee vote. In denying access to the gathering, Usher, R-Roundup, told Silvers that he avoided inviting a quorum into the discussion “on purpose” in order to conform with open-meeting laws, and that he employed the strategy regularly to facilitate private discussions about bills under consideration. 

The media companies that joined the petition are the Associated Press, the Billings Gazette, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian, the Montana Standard, the Ravalli Republic, Lee Enterprises, Hagadone Media Montana, the Montana Broadcaster’s Association, the Montana Newspaper Association, and Montana Free Press.

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Brad Tyer manages the MTFP newsroom and coordinates freelance reporters, special projects and collaborations. He edited the Missoula Independent from 2002 to 2007 and 2016 to 2018. He's also done two stints as managing editor of the Texas Observer in Austin, and has freelanced widely. Contact Brad at btyer@montanafreepress.org or 406-465-3386 ext. 1.