A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cole County argues a rule the Missouri House passed to keep certain information confidential violates the state's Constitution, and a former state representative and others violated the state's public records law.
The Sunshine and Government Accountability Project filed the lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court against the House, the House's chief clerk and custodian of records Dana Miller, former Rep. Jean Evans and up to 10-20 unnamed "elected representatives and other persons who defied and/or acted in concert to defy the Missouri Constitution and its related open records and Sunshine laws," according to the suit's petition for injunctive and declaratory relief.
The Missouri House rule at issue is House Rule 127, which was passed Jan. 15 and states: "Members may keep constituent case files, and records of the caucus of the majority or minority party of the House that contain caucus strategy, confidential. Constituent case files include any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member and a constituent, or between a member and any other party pertaining to a constituent's grievance, a question of eligibility for any benefit as it relates to a particular constituent, or any issue regarding a constituent's request for assistance."
The Sunshine Project argues in its lawsuit petition that House Rule 127 violates the Missouri Constitution's section on legislative records, which includes: "Legislative records shall be public records and subject to generally applicable state laws governing public access to public records, including the Sunshine Law. Legislative records include, but are not limited to, all records, in whatever form or format, of the official acts of the general assembly, of the official acts of legislative committees, of the official acts of members of the general assembly, of individual legislators, their employees and staff, of the conduct of legislative business and all records that are created, stored or distributed through legislative branch facilities, equipment or mechanisms, including electronic."
The Sunshine Project argues House Rule 127 also undermines the "Clean Missouri" amendment to the state Constitution, and another justification for making constituent information confidential — "a 'constitutional expectation of privacy to personal information,' also known as the 'First Amendment exception'" — leaves state government open to enabling elected officials "to conceal their communications to, and from, wealthy donors, lobbyists seeking favor, dark money groups, and even large constituent corporations."
Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters passed the "Clean Missouri" Amendment 1 to the state's Constitution in November 2018, which changed the process used to redraw House and Senate district boundaries, reduced limits on campaign contributions to state Legislature candidates, limited gifts to state lawmakers and their employees from paid lobbyists, and addressed other issues regarding money and transparency in state politics.
Evans has been specifically named in the lawsuit because her office, through the House clerk's office and House senior counsel, allegedly responded to a Sunshine request sent April 2 from the Sunshine Project to representatives asking for emails by not producing the requested emails "without redacting email addresses and postal addresses of the purported authors."
The emails were requested by the Sunshine Project as part of an investigation into constituents' identities being used without their knowledge to influence elected officials, specifically on judicial legislation.
House Senior Counsel Bryan Scheiderer told the Sunshine Project's attorney Mark Pedroli in an email dated April 16 the House had the state constitutional authority to issue House Rule 127 and close certain proceedings — based on sections 18 and 20 of Article III — and "the protection of confidentiality is an extension of the right to petition government for the redress of grievances under Article I, Section 9, of the state constitution."
Scheiderer also argued the House rule is within the bounds of the section of the state's Sunshine Law that addresses "records otherwise protected from disclosure by law."
Evans told the News Tribune via email Wednesday she had not yet seen the lawsuit, and she did not respond further after an answer was sent to her question of why she had been named in the lawsuit.
Evans represented part of St. Louis County until she left the Missouri House to take her current position as executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Pedroli, of Clayton, has previously represented the Sunshine Project in other open records lawsuits, including against then-Gov. Eric Greitens over the use of the Confide smartphone application.
The Sunshine Project describes itself in the lawsuit filed Wednesday as an unincorporated association "dedicated to government transparency and holding governments responsible to the people of Missouri."
The lawsuit over House Rule 127 seeks that the rule be declared unconstitutional; the House may not rely upon "a 'constitutional expectation of privacy to personal information' and/or the 'First Amendment exception' to conceal or redact public records;" a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction prohibit the defendants from enforcing the House rule and relying upon such a constitutional expectation to conceal or redact public records; the requested records be produced; and the Sunshine Project's attorneys' fees are paid.
The lawsuit also seeks to have the defendants pay civil penalties for Sunshine Law violations.