Jennifer Henderson's nearly three-year fight against the election that established a sales tax for the Business Loop Community Improvement District will be the subject of oral arguments before the Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The court will hear arguments in the case in an attempt to answer two questions, according to Henderson's attorney, Richard Reuben, and a summary of the case on the Supreme Court docket: whether a judge has a duty to enter a final decision in a case and whether circuit courts have jurisdiction to review special-district elections.
The lawsuit began in 2016 when Henderson challenged the way the Business Loop Community Improvement District conducted an election in which residents of the district voted 4-3 to approve a half-cent sales tax.
Henderson, then a sophomore at MU, filed a petition alleging that the election was improper because it lacked a secret ballot, a secure ballot box and sufficient notice, Reuben said.
Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel dismissed the case in March 2016 without prejudice, ruling that she lacked "subject matter jurisdiction" over community improvement district elections. Because she dismissed the case without prejudice, Henderson had no avenue to appeal because there was no final judgment rendered on her complaints.
Reuben said that at this point, the case has become more important than it ever should have been because of the arguments Asel made.
"If they're right, all these specialty jurisdictions that impose taxes could do so without having their procedures subject to judicial review," Reuben said. "And you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year."
Henderson filed several motions to modify her initial petition, but all were denied by Asel, who has said in court documents that they weren't filed in a timely manner. In December, she filed for a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court that would require Asel to issue a final judgment Henderson could appeal.
James Layton, a St. Louis attorney, is also representing Henderson. He told the Missourian in April that he thinks the issues in this case are critical to ensure people have access to courts of appeals.
The high court in March issued a preliminary writ of mandamus ordering Asel to rule, but attorneys for the improvement district instead filed a response arguing why she should not be compelled to do so. Asel's brief asserts that the writ cannot be substituted for an appeal because "mandamus is limited to ministerial decisions," and sustaining a motion to dismiss a case is a decision within her rights.
The specific subject of tomorrow's hearing is whether the Supreme Court should issue a permanent writ of mandamus against Asel.
If Henderson ever wins the ability to appeal and persuades a court the improvement district's election was improper, the results of that election would be voided, Reuben has said. That would mean the district would have to give the state the approximate $2 million it has already collected on the tax, which went into effect April 2016.
The community improvement district board thus far has used the money to pay its executive director, Carrie Gartner, and to hire a consultant to develop a master plan that calls for extensive landscaping, public art, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, pop-up social spaces and green spaces that would be intended to attract more people to the Loop.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.