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Attorneys at the Mississippi Center for Justice filed a formal ethics complaint on behalf of Mississippi Free Press reporter Nick Judin, who was barred entry from a House Republican Caucus meeting in March.
Mississippi Today first reported the journalist was barred from the March 14 meeting in an article chronicling what occurs inside the meetings. Major pieces of legislation authored or supported by Republican leaders, including Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, are often discussed and debated inside the backroom meetings.
Those private deliberations about policy 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.
Many people inside and outside the Capitol — including Republican lawmakers in both the House and the Senate — question whether the caucus meetings violate the state’s Open Meetings Act because the caucus consists of well more than half of the entire House body.
“The law is clear, yet for years the Speaker and the Caucus have violated it, conducting their business in secrecy and ignoring the rights of the public,” Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Rob McDuff, who filed the complaint, said in a statement.
The caucus 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.
State Sen. Sollie Norwood, a Democrat from Jackson, asked for an Ethics Commission opinion about the controversial meetings in early March, but commission leadership directed the senator to either file an official ethics complaint or ask the attorney general’s office for an opinion.
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,” Emily Simmons, Gunn’s communications director, told Mississippi Today last month. Trey Dellinger, Gunn’s chief of staff, shared the same justification.
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.
The decision is now before the Ethics Commission, 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, an 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.
Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.