Attorneys Heather Hamel Aya Saed

Attorneys Heather Hamel, left, and Aya Saed discuss the lawsuit they filed against ther Arizona Legislature for allegedly violating the state Open Meetings Act.

A coalition of rights groups filed suit last week accusing state lawmakers of illegally meeting behind closed doors with special interests and violates Arizona’s Open Meeting Law.

Attorneys for the organizations charge there is a quorum of at least five legislative committees attending the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council. 

The organization, funded largely by corporate interests, serves as a clearinghouse of sorts for proposed changes in state laws across the nation can wind up being formally adopted by the Legislature.

It is this process, the lawsuit states, which shuts the public out of the process at the earliest stages of amendments to state law. The fact there is a quorum present means the first action on the legislation effectively occurs behind closed doors.

“When lawmakers are going to be debating, deliberating on, deciding upon the policies impacting every Arizonan, all Arizonans have a right to be able to view and participate in that process,’’ said Heather Hamel, an attorney with The People’s Law Firm which is representing those who filed suit. “These proceedings completely undermine that.’’

The lawsuit names only the Arizona Legislature as a defendant and not any of the individual lawmakers.

Attorney Aya Saed of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which also is representing the plaintiffs, said Arizona law is built around the premise that all meetings are open to the public. 

There are exceptions to allow for executive sessions, for only for certain specified purposes.

Saed said the Exchange Council’s closed-door sessions give challengers no way of knowing exactly what went on, creating what the lawsuit calls a “circular impossibility’’ for someone to say that the meeting was illegal. 

“We’re essentially shifting the burden of proof and demanding that they tell us who it is and what it is they’re discussing,’’ she explained.

Andrew Wilder, spokesman for House Republicans called the action ``a politically driven and legally meritless lawsuit brought by far-left activists.’’ He said lawmakers from both parties attend a wide variety of policy conferences.

There was no response from Senate Republicans.

Bill Meierling, chief marketing officer for ALEC, called the press conference and lawsuit “a PR stunt.’’

He said that ALEC meetings are open to the media for free, and to anyone else who wants to pay the registration fee. General sessions are streamed live, though the individual committee meetings are not.

But the bottom line, Meierling said, is that ALEC sees itself as a forum to educate lawmakers.

“What we are is an academic institution that brings people together on an ongoing basis to engage in dialog on issues of importance,’’ he said.

None of this, he said, runs afoul of the Open Meeting Law.

“They’re not crafting legislation and they’re not looking at legislation,’’ Meierling said. “What they’re doing is discussing broad public policy.’’

Meierling does not dispute that ALEC is funded by business interests whose lobbyists and executives attend the sessions and are seeking a role in the education of lawmakers. 

But he said there is nothing exclusive about ALEC membership, saying any interest is free to join the dues-paying organization.

The challengers, however, say what emerges from these meetings is “model legislation’’ that Arizona lawmakers who attend the ALEC conferences can bring back to the Capitol and essentially cut-and-paste it into legislative proposals.

Sandra Castro, an activist with the Puente Human Rights Movement, said that SB 1070, the historic 2010 Arizona law aimed at illegal immigration, came directly from a draft crafted at an ALEC meeting.

Parts of that law have since been struck down by federal courts. 

Meierling said SB 1070 was already adopted in Arizona before it became part of the ALEC agenda as a model for other states. Anyway, he said, ALEC no longer is involved in immigration issues.

Other complaints centered around what they said is ALEC-inspired legislation to increase criminal penalties and build more private prisons.

The lawsuit seeks more than a court order barring a quorum of any committee from attending future ALEC conferences without complying with the Open Meeting Law.

Plaintiffs also want a judge to declare that any documents presented to lawmakers during ALEC meetings, including model bills, fact sheets, notes, minute, recording and presentations are public records and therefore have to be disclosed.

State law says that all meetings of the Legislature and its committees are open to the public, though lawmakers can exempt themselves from requirements to post notices and agendas.

On a broader perspective, the law defines “meeting’’ as “any gathering ... of a quorum of the members of a public body at which they discuss, propose or take legal action.’’ And it specifically includes “any deliberations by a quorum with respect to that action.’’

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