Imagine a crusading news site in Mississippi, one of the poorest and most corrupt states in the nation. That news site is the Mississippi Free Press. It recently filed a complaint with the state ethics commission after it was excluded from a meeting of the GOP caucus, which is so large that it constitutes a quorum.

The ethics commission ruled that the state legislature is not a “public body.”

The Mississippi Ethics Commission held its likely final discussion on the Mississippi Free Press’ complaint against the State House of Representatives today, restating their disagreements over the commission’s decision to declare the Mississippi Legislature not a public body under the Open Meetings Act. The Zoom stream of today’s meeting had high attendance of up to 70 viewers at one time, including representatives of multiple media outlets.

The Mississippi Free Press first filed a complaint in April 2022, after this reporter was barred from a meeting of the House GOP Caucus at the Mississippi Legislature. The caucus, which contains 75 of the 122 members of the chamber, represents a quorum of the Legislature, and is a powerful, secretive driver of key legislative agendas. Later, attorney Rob McDuff filed an additional complaint on behalf of the Mississippi Free Press.

Last week, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood recommended that the commission rule in favor of the Mississippi Free Press, writing that “it is essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business undertaken by a quorum of the House of Representatives be performed in an open and public manner.”

But the commission overruled his recommendation 5-3, substantially rejecting the argument that the House of Representatives constituted a public body, but pushing off a final decision to the debate this week.

Stephen Burrow, who argued against the Legislature’s inclusion in the Open Meetings Act, summed up the perspective of his five fellow commission members who voted against the Mississippi Free Press’ complaint. “(The Legislature is) constitutionally obligated to keep (its) doors open,” Burrow said, referring to Section 58 of the Mississippi Constitution. It states: “The doors of each House, when in session, or in committee of the whole, shall be kept open, except in cases which may require secrecy.”

Furthermore, Burrow said, he agreed with this reporter’s complaint in principle. “I think I speak for every member of this commission that we believe that the Legislature should be open, is required to be open and that meetings of the (House Republican) caucus should be open, but that’s not what’s before us.”

“What is before us is whether or not the Legislature chose to include itself within the definition of a public body, and it’s very plain to me that while they included (legislative) committees, they excluded other committees from this for whatever reason. When the Open Meetings Act was passed in 1975, they chose not to include themselves.”

Apparently, in the view of the Ethics Commission, the State Legislature is a private club. Sounds about right seeing how they take care of public needs.