JEFFERSON CITY — An initiative petition touting ethics reform that is set to go before Missouri voters on the November ballot hangs in the balance.
Dozens of spectators packed a courtroom Friday where there was standing room only to listen to lawyers argue before Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green about why the initiative, known as Clean Missouri, should be thrown off the ballot. They believe, among other things, the proposal is too broad.
Attorneys representing Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose office approves ballot measures, and Clean Missouri argued the proposed amendment deals with one subject: the Missouri General Assembly and accountability measures for it.
The petition would amend the Missouri Constitution to:
Drastically change the process and criteria for drawing state legislative districts Tighten limits on campaign contributions state legislators can acceptBan lobbyist gifts over $5Require state legislators to wait two years after they have left the General Assembly to become paid lobbyistsProhibit political fundraising from candidates or members of the General Assembly on state propertyRequire state legislators to be subject to Missouri's open-records law
Lawyers representing Paul Ritter, a Miller County resident, and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry argued that the proposal should be tossed from the ballot for a handful of violations. Mainly, they argued, it violates articles of the Missouri Constitution that prohibit initiative petitions from encompassing more than one subject and revising multiple sections of the constitution.
The proposal would implement a new system for drawing legislative districts that would task the state auditor and a newly created nonpartisan state demographer with drafting districts that aim to achieve partisan fairness. Opponents of the initiative argue that the issue, which could have lasting effects, is unrelated to the others it covers, citing the 1990 Missouri Supreme Court ruling, Missourians to Protect Initiative Process v. Blunt, which struck down an initiative on the grounds that it violated the single-subject rule.
Opponents believe Clean Missouri put popular items like campaign contribution limits in the measure to get voters to approve the real goal — changing the way district boundaries are drawn.
"They're reaching out for votes," said Edward Greim, an attorney representing Ritter. "We are changing our General Assembly forever, so it's no longer a group of people elected from the geographical areas. Instead we've got this new process in place and Missouri might become an outlier among all 50 states. … That's what we should be talking about and not about the other measures that have been log-rolled in here to generate false support."
The prosecution also argued the proposal should be thrown out for violating the First Amendment and technical errors, such as unnecessary commas and capitalization.
The defense argued these weren't substantial or valid errors to warrant the proposal's obliteration.
"It isn't a question of 'Has somebody bumped the rails?' It's a question of "Has an initiative gone off the rails?'" said Chuck Hatfield, an attorney representing Clean Missouri. "This one's not off the rails."
Hatfield urged Green to restrain from intervening, and if not allow time for the issue to be decided by the Missouri Court of Appeals.
"The timelines on this are very, very tight," Hatfield said.
With the election a little over two months away, Assistant Attorney General Jason Lewis, who represented the Secretary of State's Office, said that Sept. 25, six Tuesdays before the election, would be the "drop-dead" date for Ashcroft to make a final announcement to local election authorities as to which proposals must be placed on the ballot.
The amendment has received fierce bipartisan support and opposition.
Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican and chairman of Missourians First, put out a statement saying that the amendment should be renamed the "Gerrymandering Initiative."
"Voters should not be deceived," Talent said in the statement released this week. "Amendment One is about rigging the state legislative maps. The other provisions are the sweeteners to get voters to swallow the poison pill."
Following Friday's hearing, former Missouri House and Senate member Bob Johnson, a Republican, disagreed.
"I think it's a gerrymandering proposition, but we view it totally different, of course," he said. "I think it should be compact, contiguous and competitive. In no way is this designed to benefit either political party. This is a very neutral approach. The voters ought to have a right to vote on this."
Green reiterated that it was the court's duty to determine whether constitutional requirements have been met, not whether the proposal is good or bad.
"I think that should be clear to everyone after they got out of eighth-grade civics," he said at the end of the nearly 90-minute hearing.
Attorneys have until Tuesday to submit proposed judgments.
"I will review very quickly, as quickly as I can after that," Green said.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, email@example.com.