Local government in Texas could become a lot less transparent after a recent ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals striking down parts of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
TOMA is a set of laws requiring open and transparent deliberations by local government bodies. In 2016, a grand jury indicted then-Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, two county commissioners, and a political consultant for allegedly “knowingly [conspiring] to circumvent [TOMA] by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.”
The charges stemmed from an email chain between Doyal and the commissioners which contained secret deliberations regarding a road bond proposal. Doyal was initially acquitted by a district judge, before charges were reinstated by the Ninth Court of Appeals.
The case was then appealed to the highest criminal court in Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals, which has ruled 7-2 that the statute in question was “unconstitutionally vague”, letting Doyal off scot-free and striking a blow to transparency across the state at the same time.
The court ruled that the terms “quorum,” “secret,” “meeting,” “deliberation,” and “circumvent” were not clearly defined. The ruling stated that it was unclear what constitutes “circumventing” a law, meaning that a walking quorum, where members of a body meet secretly in smaller groups, may not be illegal.
While voters tossed Doyal from office in 2018, his victory in this court case may be his biggest accomplishment. As county judge, he fostered an environment of secrecy and suspicion in county government. Now, by having TOMA struck down, he has opened up the entire state to a lack of transparency and made open government more difficult.
The CCA is the highest court in Texas for criminal matters, so Doyal’s case should be settled. Action by the legislature would be required now in order to clarify the statute and salvage TOMA.
“Yet another perfectly good statute falls today,” said Judge Kevin Yeary, writing in dissent.