Public business by remote must be temporary
This is a season of extraordinary firsts, not least in the way public business is being conducted remotely.
That is necessary as a short-term expedient to deal with the spread of the coronavirus. It should not become a precedent for politicians and lawyers to avoid dealing openly with public issues, in front of the people who are affected by the political process.
The issues being argued, in the case of the courts, or debated, in the case of other public bodies, are to some extent not as high profile. After all, society in general is focused on the pandemic. And clearly business has to go on, including legal matters and decisions on the myriad approvals and issues that typically come before public bodies.
But there are a lot of firsts. On Monday the US supreme court heard arguments by telephone, with the audio heard live. Lawyers’ arguments before the court are typically public but not televised. The case was a minor issue, but there are more significant cases on the court’s docket, such as whether President Donald Trump can shield his tax returns and other financial records from scrutiny.
Commendably, the Louisiana supreme court has livestreamed its hearings since 2007, but social distancing means it will now hear arguments via teleconference. The state legislature started meeting last week in the restricted environs of the state capitol trying to abide by social distancing, but other bodies are also changing their meetings.
Such innovations must be temporary. The state has a robust open meetings law that protects the rights of Louisiana residents to see and hear what public bodies are doing. That’s not just a matter of viewing a screen, but watching what happens on the sidelines, since this is critical to knowing what is happening on the playing field.
Over many years political bodies have tried to avoid open meetings. In many cases The Advocate has had to go to court to enforce the rights of the public to transparent government. This year’s departures from physical meetings that the public can go to and watch cannot be the basis for open meetings in the future, when the coronavirus is but a memory. /New Orleans, May 5