Transparency in government is on trial again in a case which has come to have important state-wide implications concerning how elected officials operate and are accountable to the public.
Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal’s trial for alleged criminal violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act will continue, with the State appealing the decision by visiting Judge Randy Clapp to dismiss the case against Doyal.
Doyal and Commissioner Charlie Riley were indicted by a grand jury and charged with “conspiring to circumvent” the TOMA. The jury stated that Doyal and Riley violated the law when conducting secret meetings to plan a road bond in 2015.
Rather than face trial under the law, Doyal’s attorney instead challenged the constitutionality of the act itself, seeking to have certain provisions struck down. Clapp ultimately ruled in favor of the defense and dismissed the criminal case against Doyal and his fellow defendant Riley, although he did not explain his decision.
In the aftermath of the decision, special prosecutor Chris Downey filed a notice of appeal on behalf of the State of Texas against Doyal and Riley. The case now goes to the Beaumont-based Ninth Court of Appeals, which will review the case and make a decision on whether or not to hear oral arguments.
Texas’ Ninth Court of Appeals is composed of Justices Steve McKeithen, Hollis Horton, Leanne Johnson, and Charles Kreger. Kreger will likely recuse himself from the case.
While normally the process could take several months, the Ninth Court of Appeals has decided to accelerate review of the case, which Downey expects to take about 30 days. If the court decides to approve the appeal, the criminal indictments against Doyal and Riley will be reinstated and the case will go back to the district court level.
If the Ninth Court of Appeals upholds Clapp’s ruling, Downey plans to appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The case could eventually be appealed to the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and could theoretically end up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the ultimate decision will determine the future of Doyal’s and Riley’s political careers, the results of this case have implications far beyond the cut-throat world of Montgomery County politics. Since key provisions of TOMA itself are being challenged, the case could have an effect on how local governments conduct business. The particular statute in question for Doyal’s case is Subsection 551.143:
“A member or group of members of a governmental body commits an offense if the member or group of members knowingly conspires to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.”
While some elected officials claim the law prevents them from fully doing their job, most Texans believe the strict open meeting requirements are key to transparency and accountability in government.