Analysis: Labrador-State Board legal fight transcends closed meetings

It’s a reach to say the 2026 gubernatorial election is on.

But it’s fair to say that the fragile truce between Gov. Brad Little and Attorney General Raúl Labrador is history.

Labrador and the State Board of Education are on a collision course — heading towards a possible courtroom battle over closed-door State Board meetings. The showdown between the state’s elected legal counsel and Little’s appointed education policymakers is a juicy political proxy fight. And an important policy proxy fight.

There’s plenty of time for full-on political fighting — it’s still 34 months before the next GOP gubernatorial primary. Be patient.

But watch what’s going on here. And let’s recap.

On June 20, Labrador sued the State Board — comprised nearly entirely of gubernatorial appointees — over closed-door discussions of the University of Idaho’s plan to purchase the University of Phoenix. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing open meetings issues at the state level, but this lawsuit is still an unusual development. It’s not standard operating procedure for the attorney general — with deputies assigned to state agencies, such as the State Board — to sue one of those agencies.

Served with a suit, the State Board didn’t blink.

First, executive director Matt Freeman sent off a double-barreled June 30 letter to Labrador’s office. Freeman noted that a deputy attorney general had sat in on a State Board closed executive session on the U of I-Phoenix purchase, and raised no questions about the legality. Freeman then served notice that the State Board would now have to hire an outside lawyer to defend itself from Labrador’s lawsuit — so the board will simply send along its legal bills to Labrador.

Then, on Friday, a grim-faced and tight-lipped State Board met and voted unanimously to stand behind its closed-door Phoenix discussions. The meeting took all of two minutes. But to be fair, exactly how long does it take to say, “See you in court?”

So that’s where we are. And now, there’s a lot to think over.

The case itself. Naturally, we journalists have a built-in soft spot for a fight over open government. And so far, only Labrador has actually sketched out a case.

He has wondered how the State Board could hold a “preliminary” discussion of the Phoenix purchase on May 15 — “preliminary” being the key word in the open meetings law — and yet give its blessing to a $685 million transaction on May 18. He has also openly questioned the premise for the closed meetings: to discuss negotiations that put the U of I in competition with other states, even after the University of Arkansas walked away from a possible Phoenix purchase in April. “The State Board of Education unquestionably relied on the seller’s representation that other state universities were considering purchasing Phoenix.”

By comparison, the State Board has simply said it doesn’t see a violation of the law, without explanation. Fleshing out a case would be, presumably, a job for the State Board’s attorney for hire.

The bigger context. On the surface, this is an open meetings lawsuit. With more under the surface.

In the lawsuit, Labrador does nothing to hide his skepticism about Phoenix, and its well-documented baggage. He dedicates an entire section of the suit to recapping Phoenix’s “checkered past:” its plummeting enrollment; its $191 million Federal Trade Commission settlement over false advertising; and more. And he chastises the State Board and the U of I and its “haste to acquire a for-profit college beset with financial, moral and legal challenges.”

This also put Labrador squarely at odds with State Board members — who have been busy evangelizing for the U of I-Phoenix purchase.

And it puts him at odds with Little. The governor, a U of I alum, has been content to let his State Board appointees do most of the talking on Phoenix. But in a statement from spokeswoman Madison Hardy, Little talks not about Phoenix’s past, but about its potential.

“Governor Little wants to make as much opportunity available for Idahoans to broaden their skills and engage in our workforce,” Hardy said. “The Idaho Legislature has asked universities to explore innovative steps toward funding and expanding access to affordable learning opportunities for Idahoans. The deal has the potential to shift many more Idahoans toward rewarding careers, further strengthening our economy, communities, and families, especially in rural Idaho.”

The political overtones. Little and Labrador have a history. In 2018, Little captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination after one of the most costly and contentious primaries in state history. Little won with 37% of the vote, while Labrador received 33% and businessman and physician Tommy Ahlquist trailed at 26%.

The conventional Statehouse wisdom holds that Labrador is a likely (and maybe even inevitable) gubernatorial candidate in 2026. That doesn’t mean a rematch is inevitable — and that Little, at 72, would seek a third four-year term.

But politics without a little way-too-early speculation isn’t nearly as much fun.

Even if Little-Labrador II doesn’t materialize, don’t lose sight of the moment. The proposed Phoenix purchase is as polarizing now as it was in May, when the U of I and the State Board stepped out from behind closed doors and went public with the idea.

Some legislators are skeptical, grilling U of I President C. Scott Green during an unusual special committee hearing in June. Many U of I employees are blindsided and bewildered, as the Idaho Statesman reported last week. Green, the State Board (and, to a less public degree, Little) have been trying to fight the tide of opposition.

In the end, an open meetings lawsuit is a civil case. Even if they lose in court, State Board members would likely face only a fine. But for skeptics who aren’t sold on this pricey purchase — and the secretive process surrounding it — this legal battle takes on added weight.

It’s a surrogate for a larger, underlying policy debate.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis published on on Wednesday, July 12.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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