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South Dakota House speaker sued for keeping attorney general special session vote secret

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Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch is sworn in before this year's session.

South Dakota Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch is being sued for keeping secret a list of lawmakers who voted to hold a special Legislative session to consider impeaching the state's attorney general.

The Argus Leader and the South Dakota Newspaper Association jointly filed a lawsuit Wednesday with the South Dakota Supreme Court. The complaint alleges the Glenham Republican, who presides over the state House, is in violation of state open records laws by refusing for weeks to make public the names of lawmakers who formally signed a petition calling for the special session into Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg next month at the capitol.

"It's inexcusable for Speaker Gosch to continue hiding this information from the public," Argus Leader News Director Cory Myers said, noting attempts to work with Gosch and his private attorney to resolve the matter were unsuccessful. "There's a constitutional requirement to record legislative votes, and at the very least, an obligation of elected servants to be transparent about their processes.

"This is basic accountability, and that's something we will always fight for," he added.

In South Dakota, it takes the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to convene the Legislature outside of their annual winter gathering in Pierre. And last month, after House leaders called for one to consider whether Ravnsborg's involvement in a fatal crash last year merits impeachment, Gosch announced the special session would take place Nov. 9.

But the public doesn't know how many, nor which, lawmakers signed the special session petition.

The list of Senators who supported the special session was provided to the media last week after an Argus Leader request. Gosch, however, has maintained he has no obligation to make the vote public, citing the "correspondence" exemption under South Dakota's open records laws.

He also said it was his position that how lawmakers voted on whether to hold a special session was not material to the question of impeachment itself, therefore irrelevant.

"We're just voting for a meeting. That's all we're voting for. So ultimately, who voted on whether or not we should get together is not relevant," Gosch told the Argus Leader in September.

Gosch has since declined to comment on the matter, citing pending litigation and referring questions to his attorney, John Von Wald. Von Wald could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Following the filing of the lawsuit, SDNA executive director David Bordewyk said it's imperative that basic government information be open for public inspection, including official votes that trigger Legislative action.

"That especially includes the action take by legislators to consider this special session," he said. "These are unique circumstances — legislators considering impeachment proceedings. All the more reason why any and all official actions related to this must be public."

The lawsuit being brought against Gosch requests the Supreme Court not only compel the release of the House vote on the impeachment special session, but also halt the special session from going forward until the litigation is resolved.

"Only this Court can provide the relief and/or remedy that will prevent a flagrant violation of the public’s right of access to government records — a right protected by constitution, statute and common law," reads the filing from Jon Arneson, an open records attorney representing the Argus Leader and SDNA. "And even if there were no supporting law, common sense, alone, dictates that this information is something that the citizens have a right to know and government has a duty to reveal."

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