By: Mark Fitzgerald

State’s Supreme Court Permitted Secret Ballot

In a fight to prevent the Texas Senate from choosing the state’s
new lieutenant governor by a secret ballot, five newspapers last
week won in the two state courts – but lost big in the Texas
Supreme Court.

The state’s high court unanimously ruled against a lawsuit by the
five papers and Texas Monthly magazine that argued holding
a secret ballot to choose an acting lieutenant governor would
violate the state’s Open Meetings Act. Within two hours of the
high court’s ruling, the Senate used a secret paper ballot to
pick Sen. Bill Ratliff to replace former Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who
became governor two weeks ago when George W. Bush resigned to
become president.

Fred Zipp, assistant managing editor-local/state for one of the
suing newspapers, the Austin American-Statesman, said he
was “troubled” by the high court’s conclusion that it did not
have jurisdiction to force an open vote. The court said the state
constitution allowed the Senate to choose officers by secret
ballot if it chose. The newspapers argued the “officers” referred
to ceremonial posts, not an elected office constitutionally
endowed with more actual power than the Texas governorship.

“The Texas Supreme Court relied on a tortured reading of the
state Constitution, one that equates the most powerful public job
in Texas with a filing clerk for the Senate in order to reach its
conclusion,” Zipp said. Other newspapers in the lawsuit were
The Bryan-College Station Eagle, Houston Chronicle,
San Antonio Express-News, and Waco Tribune-Herald.

Ironically, the senators pushing for a secret ballot were
represented by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who has been a
stron proponent of open government. He told The Associated Press
that the court’s “very narrow” decision would not hurt the cause.

Mark Fitzgerald (mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com) is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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