A tour of Supreme Court offices has been delayed following concerns about press freedom and potential violations of West Virginia’s open meetings laws as some state delegates push for court transparency. Members of the House Judiciary Committee also agreed to make their tour of the court conditional upon media access being granted to three pool reporters from the press corps covering potential impeachment proceedings of one or more state Supreme Court justices.
The delay came following a motion by Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who cited the possibility of violations of the state’s open meetings laws.
“It's important that you're there for transparency purposes, right? We’re there as representatives of the people -- we were elected to do so. And you're also there as representatives the people. You're a check on us, you're essentially the fourth branch,” Fluharty said. “We want the press there to give a nonpartisan analysis. A bunch of politicians walk in a room, and they walk out with different opinions based upon their political background.”
Delegates of both parties -- except for Dels. Charlotte Lane and Tom Fast, both Republicans -- voted in favor of the motion to delay the tour.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) July 20, 2018
“Based upon what our chairman stated -- that they had conferred with multiple attorneys about this. Not only our staff attorneys, but other attorneys as well, and believed [having the meeting today] was a prudent thing to do. And timeliness, we're trying to move this thing on,” Fast, R-Fayette, said. “This meeting had been scheduled for several days. And if there was going to be an issue of delaying it, I think they should have been brought up much sooner than right before we're ready to go. So, it disrupts the schedule and I thought that it had been legally and fairly explored.”
A second motion by Fluharty made the impending tour conditional on media access being provided to three pool reporters. Members of the media will decide among themselves who will attend the tour to provide notes, audio, video and other reportage to those not selected to tour the court offices.
Members of the West Virginia media had been pushing for access to a tour of the Supreme Court offices, not just to see the renovations at the heart of the impeachment proceedings, but also to observe the interaction between members of the committee and court staff members.
“I think this is -- at the very heart of -- the issue that we're exploring here as transparency and have a lack of that, in our evaluation and tour of the court, I think is indicative of the whole problem,” Del. Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, said.
The House Judiciary Committee was originally scheduled to tour the offices at 10:30 a.m. Friday as part of their investigation into the possible impeachment of one or more justices on the state’s high court. However, the media had been excluded from that tour and requests for access have not been returned.
Discussions about media access began Thursday following an email from court public information officer Jennifer Bundy to members of the press corps covering the impeachment proceedings.
“The tour of Supreme Court offices tomorrow, Friday, July 20, is solely for members of the House Judiciary Committee and committee staff. No media will be allowed to participate in the tour,” Bundy wrote. “Media entities may request access to court offices at another time. Send the request to Interim Administrative Director Barbara Allen.”
Multiple requests from the media -- including West Virginia Public Broadcasting -- for a reconsideration of this decision have gone unanswered.
Lavish spending by the court on office renovations -- to the tune of millions of dollars -- has been a key focus of the impeachment proceedings.
On her way into the building Friday morning, Bundy -- who testified to the committee Thursday -- cited an exception to West Virginia’s open meetings law as the reason for media being put in the dark. She cited West Virginia Code Code § 6-9A-2(5)(B). The law states that “any on-site inspection of any project or program” can be excluded from the open meetings law. Exemptions to open meetings laws are optional and not a mandate.
Asked by reporters if he feels media should have the same, concurrent access as the committee, chairman John Shott said the exclusion of the media was not his decision to be made. Shott also said the tour would not be an official meeting of the committee.
“It is not an official meeting. It will be voluntary for our members who want to go -- so at the conclusion of our sessions, we will recess to allow those members who want to go now,” Shott said.
Democrats on the committee expressed support of media to attend the tour Friday along with delegates. Some delegates, including Del. Mike Pushkin, offered to take photos and video.
However, the court said in a news release that photos and video of the offices would not be allowed Friday.
“The Committee members will be instructed that the Supreme Court will not allow photography or video during the tour, and that if afterward they believe pictures or videos are necessary, Chairman John Shott and the Committee’s photographer will contact Interim Court Administrator Barbara Allen,” the court said in the release.
The news release also reiterated West Virginia Code for the media’s exclusion from Friday’s tour.
A tour of the Supreme Court offices has been tentatively rescheduled for Friday, July 27, 2018.