Friday, April 28, 2006 | 7:34 a.m.
The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a state panel must conduct its proceedings in public when it determines whether a sex offender poses a high risk of recidivism.
The case was brought to the court on behalf of Robert Stockmeier, a convicted sex offender who was not allowed to attend a hearing when new charges were leveled against him.
Based on those unsubstantiated allegations, Stockmeier was denied release from prison by the state Correction Department's Psychological Review Panel.
The court's ruling allows Stockmeier to sue the Corrections Department for violating the state's open meeting law .
Although the justices stopped short of ruling whether the review panel violated the law, it ordered Pershing County District Judge Richard Wagner "to fully analyze whether the Psych Panel did indeed violate the open meeting law."
Wagner's previous rulings - that Stockmeier lacked the standing to bring the issue before the court and the review panel's proceedings were exempt from open meetings law - set the stage for the high court's ruling.
In December 2002 the panel met in private to discuss Stockmeier's character, mental health and alleged misconduct. During a portion of the session when Stockmeier was not allowed to attend, the victim and the victim's family spoke of the effect Stockmeier's offenses had on their lives and said they feared for their safety if Stockmeier was released.
During the testimony, one of them claimed to have recently remembered additional acts of physical abuse by Stockmeier.
After they left the hearing, Stockmeier was brought in for questioning. The panel raised the new allegations.
Stockmeier admitted committing the crimes he was convicted for, but denied the newest allegations. He was then taken from the room so the panel could deliberate behind closed doors.
In refusing to certify Stockmeier for release, the panel cited the new allegations as one of the reasons for the denial.
Alan Lichtenstein, attorney for the Nevada's American Civil Liberties Union, said the panel's conduct was an outrageous violation of Stockmeier's rights.
"The idea that this man was prevented from being part of a hearing where new allegations that never came out at trial are alleged and then used as part of the decision to keep him in prison is absolutely absurd," he said.
Lichtenstein said even more disturbing was that "there is no reason to believe this is the first time something like this has happened."
Lichtenstein hailed the Supreme Court's ruling. "Hopefully this decision will stop this from happening again."
Senior Deputy Attorney General Neil Lombardo, who serves as the open meetings law prosecutor for Nevada, said the ruling "will cause a big shift" and a "total overhaul of the process."
Lombardo said the state has always maintained that the review panel is "a part of the judiciary as it deals with sentencing and is similar to certain proceedings that are carried out by the parole board."
"We've always maintained that the panel was exempt and now they will have to conduct this business all out in the open," Lombardo said. "This is going to require some careful thinking because much of the information the panel deals with is incredibly sensitive and confidential. It could force them to really walk some fine lines."