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Kander's website provides state House and Senate debate on demand

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2013 - Show Me State political obsessives, take note: It’s no longer necessary to be glued to a computer when legislative debate is afoot.

That’s because Secretary of State Jason Kander unveiled a new website on Tuesday that includes archived audio recordings of Missouri House and Senate debates. The goal of the newly minted Missouri Channel, according to a press release from Kander’s office, is to allow Missourians to “listen to their government in action when it’s convenient for them.”

“One of my major goals as secretary of state is to make government more transparent and accessible, and this project will go a long way to achieve that,” said Kander in a statement. “Even better, this initiative comes at no additional cost to the taxpayers because it’s using systems already in place.”

For years, Missouri political enthusiasts could only listen into live state House and Senate debate through each chamber’s respective website. [They could also hear extended audio cuts on some news services, such as MissouriNet or St. Louis Public Radio.] To that end, the site could be a convenient conduit for political junkies, as well as a nifty resource for political reporters who may have missed a memorable quote during debate.

But one question is whether it may also break some legal ground. That’s because determining the General Assembly’s intent is often at the heart of legal disputes over legislation.

When the Missouri Supreme Court in 2007, for instance, restored campaign contribution limits in Trout vs. State of Missouri, it ruled that the legislative history of the bill indicated lawmakers would not have allowed for limitless donations if a provision barring donations during the session was not in effect.

Some lawmakers at the time – including then-Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, and then-Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia – contended the court misinterpreted their decision-making. It's possible that attorneys could point to audio of legislative debate on Kander's site to provide more insight into the bill’s composition and trajectory.

“Generally the Missouri courts say debate is not evidence of intent (as opposed to feds who say it is),” said Chuck Hatfield, an attorney for Stinson Morrison Hecker who was involved in the Trout case, in an e-mail to the Beacon. “But traditionally what people did in Missouri is bring in the sponsor to testify about intent and what was said. Having a more formal verifiable record could change things.”

Two other attorneys contacted by the Beacon take different view of the prospect, including former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff.

Wolff – a St. Louis University faculty member who was a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court when the Trout\decision came down – told the Beacon that Kander’s new site will have no impact whatsoever in determining legislative intent. He added what lawmakers say “on the floor or in committee sessions or anything else” doesn’t make “one bit of difference to most judges.”

“I don’t think you can infer intent by what people say about it,” Wolff said. “I prefer to use the word ‘purpose.’ What was the legislature’s purpose in enacting this provision? And in that regard, I can read other parts of the law or I can figure out what was the problem they were trying to solve in what the purposes of their intent was. But I think what they say on the floor, they say all sorts of stuff on the floor that may or may not be related – even when the sponsor gets up and explains it.

“You really need to look at the words that they wrote, because otherwise you’re really lost in people trying to spin it,” he added. “And don’t think the court needs to have spin. They get enough of that from the lawyers already.”

Stinson attorney Jane Dueker -- a chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Holden who also worked on the Trout case -- said in an e-mail that legislative debate is "very unreliable." She said the theory is that a legislative body "can only speak through proper voting majority."

That doesn’t mean that Wolff – who worked at a Minnesota newspaper while he was in law school – doesn’t see value in Kander’s site. He said the site is “useful because the public has an interest in knowing what these guys say about why they’re doing the stuff that they do.

“But I don’t think legally we should look at anything but the words that they wrote,” Wolff said. “And I’ve had people come up to me at cocktail parties in Jefferson City saying ‘this is what we meant.’ Well I said, ‘I’m not going to listen to that. This is a party, this isn’t a court.'”

Kander's spokeswoman Liz Abram-Oldham told the Beacon she didn’t want to make a statement “on what courts may or may not do or what they may or may not take into account when they are making their decisions.”

“We certainly can’t predict what courts or anybody is going to do with this information available to them,” she added. 

Thus far, the Missouri Channel has audio of legislative debate and legislative journals from last week’s Missouri House and Senate proceedings. Kander’s office said the site “will grow in the coming months and years to provide Missourians more access to the Missouri Legislature and statewide officeholders.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.