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Full Federal Appeals Court To Decide Whether Unpaid Lobbyists In Missouri Must Register

Opponents of a new transmission line across northern Missouri sit in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol on April 16, 2019.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a case Friday on whether the state of Missouri can require unpaid lobbyists to register in the same way as paid lobbyists.

A federal appeals court will hear arguments in St. Louis on Friday in a case that challenges the idea that unpaid lobbyists have to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

A divided panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that Ron Calzone, a conservative activist, had to fill out the required forms and pay a fine for failing to do so. In a rare move, all 12 judges of the court will reconsider the case.

Calzone is the founder of Missouri First. In that role, he regularly travels to Jefferson City to advocate for legislation that supports “individual liberty, free market capitalism, constitutionally limited government and other principles that are consistent with the concept of an American constitutional republic.”

Calzone does not get paid for the lobbying work he does and has never given lawmakers gifts. But back in 2014, the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants, which represents lobbyists, filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission, arguing that Calzone needed to comply with the state’s registration requirements anyway. The commission agreed, and Calzone sued, arguing that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

“The very basis of our system of government is that citizens who are passionate about certain ideas go and share those ideas with the people in power, also known as petitioning them for redress of grievances, and hopefully they can get their ideas adopted as law in the state,” said Dave Roland, the litigation director at the Freedom Center of Missouri, which is representing Calzone. “That’s what Ron is not being allowed to do under the Ethics Commission rule.”

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled againstCalzone in 2016. The 8th Circuit panel upheld her ruling, writing that the state “retains a sufficiently important governmental interest in registering lobbyists whether the lobbyist is paid or unpaid.”

Roland and his co-counsel, Allen Dickerson at the Institute for Free Speech, agree that paid lobbyists should have to register. In fact, said Dickerson, that’s the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court set back in 1954.

“There, the court was pretty clear that the reach of the government’s interest in lobbying is about, and this is a quote, ‘who’s putting up the money and how much,’” Dickerson said.

The ruling in Calzone’s case, he said, casts the net too broadly.

“It’s not reasonable to assume that every volunteer for a Sierra Club or a Boy Scout troop that goes up to the Capitol is on notice that they have to go and do all of these various things that we would expect of professionals,” he said.

The state does not comment on pending litigation. In briefs filed with the court, attorneys argued that the public and lawmakers alike have an interest in knowing who is speaking, not just who is funding the speech.

It’s rare for all the judges on a federal appeals court to review a ruling by a panel — out of the thousands of cases decided by smaller panels, Roland said the full 8th Circuit hears just a handful. Dickerson said the decision to review the case en banc shows the 8th Circuit understands the implications of the earlier opinion.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.