A judge here refused today to halt closed-door proceedings by a budget conference committee of the Maryland General Assembly after objections by newspapers and a state senator who argued the state open meetings law would be violated.
Ruling in a request for a temporary restraining order, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Martin A. Wolff said he does not have jurisdiction in the case because the state open meetings law exempts sessions in which officials are appropriating state funds.
Wolff said the plaintiffs may continue the case on their argument that the conference committee of six legislators -- which is resolving millions of dollars of differences between House and Senate versions of the state budget -- is not appropriating funds since it is an advisory body.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Baltimore Evening Sun and State Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery), said they have not yet decided whether to proceed.
The conference committee voted unanimously last night to close its meeting, citing as a compelling reason "the negotiating aspects of resolving budget differences." Plaintiffs argued in court that the action caused "irreparable harm" because it kept the public from being "advised of and aware of" how public policy is made.
Earlier, the State Senate defeated by a 32-to-15 vote a motion by Denis to open the session, with senators vocally defending the historic closed-door procedure for conference committees. "The frank discussions that are necessary just never take place if the press is there," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate's conference committee contingent. "You end up working around them and it takes two or three times as long."