Judge says Missouri House rule limiting access to public records is constitutional

One transparency advocate says the ruling ‘obliterates the amendment voters adopted in 2018 that required legislative records to be subject to public records laws’

By: - January 26, 2023 10:32 am

A recent ruling says the House can limit the public's access to certain legislative records (Getty Images).

A Cole County judge has concluded that a rule implemented by the Missouri House in 2019 allowing lawmakers to withhold certain information from public records does not violate the state constitution. 

The lawsuit was filed by Mark Pedroli, founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project. He challenged a rule adopted by the Missouri House allowing legislators to “keep constituent case files, and records of the caucus of the majority or minority party of the House that contain caucus strategy, confidential.” 

The rule was in direct response to a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by Missouri voters a few months earlier in 2018. Among other provisions, the amendment required the legislature to abide by the state’s Sunshine Law.

Previously, some lawmakers had considered themselves exempt from open records laws.

Pedroli sued, alleging the rule defied the will of the voters and violated the constitution. 

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem did not agree, issuing a three page ruling dismissing Pedroli’s lawsuit last Thursday. 

Missouri’s constitution gives the legislature the power to set the rules of its own proceedings.

The 2018 constitutional amendment may limit the legislature’s ability to exclude its records from the definition of a public record, Beetem wrote, but nothing in the amendment “prevents the General Assembly from closing those records, either directly or indirectly by House rule.”

“The Sunshine Law requires access to those public records which are not closed, i.e., open records,” Beetem wrote in his ruling. ”The Sunshine Law clearly acknowledges the ability to protect records from disclosure by law.”

Missouri judge hears arguments over whether legislative rule violates open records law

Pedroli said he was reviewing the ruling before making any decision about an appeal.  

David Roland, director of litigation for the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri, said Beetem’s ruling “obliterates the amendment that voters adopted in 2018 that required legislative records to be subject to public records laws.”

The 2018 amendment was designed, Roland says, to prevent the legislature from trying to “exempt itself from public records requirements simply by adopting a rule.”

If the legislature wants to limit access to public records, it should have to pass a bill through both the House and Senate, get the governor’s signature and then allow it to be subject to repeal by the voters through a referendum, Roland said. Instead, one legislative chamber can act without any checks through its rules.

“What Judge Beetem’s ruling says is that this amendment in 2018 didn’t change anything at all,” Roland said, adding that the ruling is “just a clear misreading of the language and intent” of the constitutional amendment. 

Roland hopes the ruling gets appealed, and it “certainly should be overturned.” 

The lawsuit was inspired by a 2019 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about Missouri lawmakers getting letters — purportedly from constituents — asking them to support legislation making it harder to file lawsuits against out-of-state companies.

But many of the constituents said they never sent the letters, which used language from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce website. 

Pedroli was contacted by one of the people who had a letter sent in their name, prompting him to look into “misappropriated constituent names, identity theft and fake emails used to influence Missouri elected officials.” 

He sent Sunshine requests to Missouri House members, asking for emails similar to those sent to Missouri elected officials without the knowledge or consent of constituents. Some legislators produced the emails. Others refused to produce the records without redacting email and postal addresses of the purported authors.

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.