Judge declares Missouri ethics law unconstitutional
March 31, 2011
JEFFERSON CITY • A Cole County judge today threw out an ethics law passed by the Missouri Legislature last year.
Circuit Judge Daniel R. Green ruled that the law is unconstitutional because it covers multiple subjects. The state constitution requires that bills contain only one subject.
The state attorney general's office could not immediately be reached on whether the state will appeal the decision. An official at the Missouri Ethics Commission said the agency was reviewing the decision.
The law was passed on the last day of the 2010 legislative session. At the time, legislators ballyhooed it as a crackdown on politicians who launder money through several political action committees.
But Green said the bill "contains matters that do not fairly relate to ethics, have a natural connection to ethics or are a means to accomplish the law's purpose as enacted."
Those multiple subjects include changes in state purchasing rules and a requirement that each legislator be provided a key to the dome of the state Capitol.
Green halted enforcement of all provisions except those dealing with purchasing, the original purpose of the bill.
He also threw out a provision barring state-chartered banks from making contributions to political action committees, saying that provision violated banks' First Amendment rights.
Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City attorney, brought the suit on behalf of Legends Bank and its president, John Klebba, who is also president of the Missouri Bankers Association.
The bankers contended they were being illegally singled out and barred from participating in the political process. Legislators attributed that provision to a drafting error.
Though Green's ruling immediately opens up the possibility of money transfers among political action committees, Hatfield said he expected people to be cautious because the case is likely to wind up in the Missouri Supreme Court.
"I think we probably need to wait and see what the Supreme Court does before anybody takes action," he said.
The law, known as SB844, began as a simple purchasing bill in the Senate but was transformed into the ethics law after House members repealed 29 sections of law and inserted 49 new sections.
In its final form, the bill limited committee-to-committee money transfers; made it a crime to obstruct a Missouri Ethics Commission investigation; allowed the commission to initiate its own investigations; required donations of $500 or more during the legislative session to be reported within 48 hours; and made it a crime for a governor to offer a lawmaker a job in exchange for a vote.
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