Friday, September 21, 2007

Public officials and constitutional rights

I have long believed that if one party is somehow "more guilty" than others of violating the Open Meetings Act in relation to the now-infamous appointments of eight Knox County Commissioners, it was Knox County Commission Chairman Scott Moore, not Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, as most people familiar with these proceedings seem to believe. If mobile phone records are an indication of conduct that could be construed as violating the Sunshine Law, than Scott Moore's phone records are utterly damning:

Those records showed that Moore called Chuck Bolus, his campaign treasurer, hours before the state Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding term limits.

The court already had announced that it would release its opinion later that same day — Jan. 12.

His phone records showed calls to Hutchison in the days after the ruling and also calls to an employee of Hutchison’s, Lee Tramel, who also won a seat on commission in a hotly-contested battle between Tramel and Scott Davis, long linked to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale.

Moore made a total of 23 phone calls to Bolus from Jan. 12 to Jan. 31 lasting a total of three hours and seven minutes. He also made 23 calls to Tramel, lasting a total of one hour and 45 minutes.

The News-Sentinel has its obvious biases in covering this court case (it is the Plaintiff) so I would not expect it to be the media which brings to light the key Constitutional question that arises as a result of examining Moore's phone records:

Even if the Commission meeting on January 31 were conducted with greater public input and been in full compliance with the Sunshine Law on that day, if Moore was going to move to nominate Bolus, does not Bolus have the right to know this in advance? If he does, than unless the News-Sentinel or the Chancery Court managed to get a warrant to listen in on Moore's phone conversations, it is a matter of raw speculation that Moore broke the Sunshine Law as it relates to Bolus' appointment. If Moore planned to nominate his friend Bolus, does the law not give him the right to alert Bolus to this reality in advance? If not, it could be argued that the Open Meetings Act as it is presently written infringes on private free speech and violates the right to privacy that is more explicitly found in the Tennessee Constitution.

In the rush to insure that justice is done, it must be remembered that Knox County Commissioners are also citizens, and that means that as surely as they must abide by the laws that they pass and are not above the law, they also enjoy the same rights and liberties provided by the Tennessee Constitution and the Constitution of the United States as does any other citizen. In plain English, that means that Scott Moore has the right to a telephone conversation with his friend Charles Bolus, and whether or not the Sunshine Law was broken in that conversation is a matter of legal speculation.

In no way does this dismiss the conduct of Knox County Commissioners on January 31 as somehow legitimate in the truest sense-it does not. What this situation does illustrate is our propensity to want the rights that we take for granted as citizens to apply to us, but not to the people that we elect to represent us. If we expect (and rightly so) that our elected officials are not above the laws they pass for us, the protections of our rights and liberties within the Constitution apply as much to those sworn to uphold that Constitution as it does to those who must live under it.



At Thursday, September 27, 2007 1:03:00 AM, Blogger Sour Persimmon said...

It's a stretch to claim sunshine laws violate anyone's Constitutional rights since they only apply to elected officials conducting public business. Also, there is no punishment against individuals in the law, only nullification of any decisions impacted by the violation.

No one is saying it is wrong for Moore to talk to his friends. In this instance, however, it is part of the evidence showing the outcome of the appointments was engineered behind the scenes.

At Thursday, September 27, 2007 1:40:00 AM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

The problem is that the Sunshine Law defines very broadly what constitutes "deliberation" and isn't all that clear on what constitutes a public meeting. On top of that, I wouldn't expect the General Assembly to deal with the "holes" in the law, because people would then demand that the Sunshine Law apply equally to the General Assembly-at present it does not.


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