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It can get ugly, but it shouldn’t be secret

North Carolinians got a fascinating glimpse this week into how the legislative sausage is made in Raleigh. And it was some spicy sausage, too.

In a meeting with animal welfare advocates this month, powerful state Sen. Bill Rabon lost his head – but unfortunately not his tongue – in a tirade that was caught on tape and subsequently leaked. Rabon, a Republican from Southport, blasted Gov. Pat McCrory and his wife, Ann, in the meeting for a “flagrant violation of power” in pushing a bill that would crack down on puppy mills. He called House lawmakers an unprintable word for passing that bill. He boasted about how he would use his power to kill it.

“It takes 26 senators, it takes 61 representatives to pass anything, and then the governor has to sign it,” he said. “It takes one jerk to stop it.”

Well, at least he has self-awareness going for him.

So how did his fellow legislators react before Rabon apologized a day after the tantrum went public? Not with outrage at his language and tone toward his colleagues and the governor. Not with indignation at his gleeful chest-thumping about blocking legislation. Instead, Senate leaders took offense that someone would dare reveal what Rabon had said. They called the leaker “divisive” and “unethical.”

It’s yet another example of how public officials don’t like the public’s knowing too much about how they do their jobs. How far are they willing to go to avoid pulling back the curtain? In federal court filings this month, 13 N.C. Republicans are trying to quash subpeonas asking for emails and other correspondence they sent or received while crafting the state’s new voter ID law and other election reforms.

The Republican group includes House Speaker Thom Tillis and Mecklenburg colleagues Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Ruth Samuelson. The NAACP, ACLU, U.S. Justice Department and others are suing the legislators, governor and N.C. elections board.

The legislators say they are protected by “legislative immunity,” which they claim not only shields them from “arrest or civil process for what they do in legislative proceedings,” but also having to reveal the conversations they had during the crafting of that legislation.

Are they right? The concept of legislative immunity sprung from English legislators trying to protect themselves from the bullying of English monarchs centuries ago. In the U.S., more than 40 states, including North Carolina, offer lawmakers protection from punitive executive or judicial action regarding the discharge of their legislative duties. Of course, if lawmakers engage in illegal activities, such as taking bribes, then they are not shielded from punishment. But legislative immunity does protect lawmakers from liability for what they say during floor debate and committee deliberations.

This is where things begin to get legally fuzzy. Is it “punitive” to have to make public those deliberations and other communications? Are emails outside of floor debate and committee meetings also protected? States are struggling to resolve these issues, and in North Carolina, it might take a court to decide what lawmakers must reveal.

It shouldn’t. As Sen. Rabon showed, the legislative process can be an ugly mix of power and ego. But the public deserves to know more, not less, about how legislators do the business we elected them to do.

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