The President's Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution has decided that its discussions will be held in private.
The first meeting of the commission, July 29-30 at the Supreme Court, was closed to the public and a second meeting scheduled today in Salt Lake City will also be closed, said a spokeswoman for the panel's chairman, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
Spokeswoman Toni House said she did not know how many more meetings would be held, but "all or parts of all the rest will be closed."
The major goal of the commission, created by Congress with an initial $300,000 appropriation, is to inform the public about the Constitution and its importance in securing basic freedoms.
"In terms of what the commission is supposed to represent, which is the maximum of publicity, that's a heck of a way to get started," a Senate staff member who specializes in legal affairs said yesterday.
"I am sure the majority of American people -- a good part of whom read newspapers -- do not know there is such a thing as the bicentennial commission."
The staff member, who asked not to be named, said, "We're not dealing here with terrorist negotiations. We're dealing here with promotion of values and virtues of the Constitution of the United States."
Members of the commission, which includes senators, judges, business leaders and lawyers, were divided about the reasons for closing the meetings or where the idea came from.
"I think we've decided it's the most efficient way to proceed," said commission member Lynne Cheney, senior editor at Washingtonian magazine. "Since we're late getting started, we wanted to expedite what we have to do."
But Bernard Siegan, a law professor at the University of San Diego, said he did not know the meetings were closed to the public and the matter was not brought up at the first meeting. He declined to comment further.
Another member, Harry Lightsey, dean of the University of South Carolina Law Center, said he believed the first two meetings were closed because of the discussion of personnel matters, which took up a major portion of the first meeting. The commission is authorized to hire staff.
Lightsey added he was "sure the commission meetings generally will be open to the public. I would favor almost all of the meetings being open meetings. I believe in public meetings."
A press release issued after the first two days of commission meetings noted the members voted unanimously to support a number of revisions in the commission statute and create a one-time national holiday on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 1987, the official date of the Constitution's 200th anniversary.
House said she did not know who decided to close the meetings, but noted the commission is not obligated by law to keep them open.