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Adrian: Closed Doors

Poet William Blake once wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

In the waning days of Vermont’s legislative session, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy met in a closed door session without announced explanation or justification. When questioned about the secretive session Senate Pro Tem John Campbell indicated that the law allowed for closed meetings and to prove his point, obtained an opinion from the legislature’s attorney providing a legal basis for the closed meeting.

The legal memo indicated that The Vermont Open Meeting Law was not applicable to the legislature. It also cited the “Open Doors” provision of the Vermont Constitution that states “the doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut. ” This allowed for the conclusion that standing committees may meet anytime without warning and behind closed doors - t he subtext being that essentially everything the legislature discusses involves the welfare of the state.

On only one occasion has the Vermont Supreme Court discussed this constitutional language - opining it is “ a truism of a republican form of government, and provides no private right of action. The remedy contemplated by it is that of popular election.” Thus, unless a statute expands upon the Constitution, other than the next election, the public is left without a remedy to redress having a door abruptly shut under the Golden Dome.

Now, it may well be that the letter of the law allows for legislative portcullises to be closed willy-nilly. But I would argue that the spirit of the law would need - at a minimum - for any legislative entity meeting clandestinely to articulate a reason for the gated debate ; and to demonstrate how meeting in the sunshine would harm the welfare of the state.

We need to work on improving the legislative process to be able to see things as they truly are. Blake’s vision gave rise to a book by Aldous Huxley, that in turn provided the name for the band, The Doors, who asked us through verse to “break on through to the other side.” In law as in politics, perception is nearly as important as reality.

Ed Adrian is an attorney at the law firm Monaghan Safar Ducham PLLC. He previously served on the Burlington City Council for five years and currently sits on the Burlington Library Commission.
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