Concord, NH - In case you missed it: Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien was called out in today's Concord Monitor for shutting New Hampshire citizens out of the State House, while he passed a reckless budget that has since killed over a thousand Granite State jobs. In response to O'Brien's unconstitutional action, a group of concerned citizens filed a lawsuit and took him to court.
Last week, the House Republican Legal Counsel tried to have the case dismissed. He and O'Brien made the "far-fetched" argument that because the Constitution was written before the State House was build, its mandate that "The doors of the galleries . . . shall be kept open" is not relevant to this situation. Further O'Brien's lawyer argued that the gallery could be turned into a "cafeteria" or "WiFi lounge" at whim.
"O'Brien's complete lack of respect for the people of New Hampshire, their Constitution, and their State House couldn't be more obvious," said Harrell Kirstein, press secretary for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "Passing his reckless budget behind closed doors may have been the best strategy at the time, but that doesn't make it right and hasn't stopped it from killing hundreds of New Hampshire jobs."
The full text of the editorial is below.
August 16, 2011
Back in March, when New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien locked the public out of the gallery above Representatives Hall, it seemed like an overreaction to a difficult situation.
The House was debating budget cuts and measures to curtail collective bargaining by unions. There were thousands of protesters outside the building and hecklers in the gallery. O'Brien was trying to maintain decorum. Rather than just toss out the noise-makers, he shut off all public access to the gallery.
In the heat of the moment, it was an unfortunate decision. But all these months later, for O'Brien to persevere in a court fight to establish his right to shut the public out whenever he wants is downright chilling.
O'Brien, through attorney Ed Mosca, recently responded to a lawsuit accusing him of acting unconstitutionally that day. In fact, O'Brien argues, he has the authority to lock the public out of legislative sessions whenever he chooses.
State representatives, let us remember, work for the people who sent them to Concord. The House and its gallery belong to the people - and those people have a right to check up on their elected officials. State government is supposed to operate in public. Indeed, the New Hampshire Constitution itself demands that "The doors of the galleries . . . shall be kept open to all persons who behave decently." To shut the public out offends the very basis of our democracy.
O'Brien's arguments to the contrary strike us as exotic and far-fetched: The particular gallery in question wasn't built at the time of the Constitution - and an 18th-century dictionary doesn't recognize "gallery" to mean the Representatives Hall balcony as it exists today. He also argues that the presence of journalists and the willingness of House leaders to "live-stream" their proceedings via internet negates the need for the public to actually sit in the gallery and watch.
None of that is a substitute for being there: To watch your own state legislators in action, to see whom they're kibitzing with, who's trying to twist their arms, whether they're making up their own minds or doing what their leaders instruct, whether they're listening to arguments on the floor or playing hooky during the debate - all of this important and hard to figure out from afar.
Even if a judge finds merit in the speaker's case, we urge O'Brien to think twice. Win or lose, he is setting a terrible precedent.
Transparency in government is critical - particularly in a state which touts its informed and politically active citizenry as a model for the rest of the nation.
At the time of the fracas, state lawmakers voted 217-146 to uphold O'Brien's decision to keep the gallery closed. They no doubt thought they were siding with law and order over mayhem. But the decision that day went too far. We urge them to prevail upon their leader to drop the argument and return to the rules that have governed the House for generations: As long as they do not interrupt the proceedings on the floor, visitors of all sorts are welcome in the gallery. That is a tradition to be cherished, not trampled on.