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Appeals court tosses challenge to Missouri House rule hiding constituent information

Gavel in a courtroom
Ekaterina Bolovtsova
In a 2-1 decision, the Western District Court of Appeals ordered the dismissal of a case challenging rules written in 2019 to limit legislative records subject to the Sunshine Law.

A St. Louis County attorney challenging Missouri House rules hiding the names of constituents who communicate with lawmakers lost an appeal Tuesday — but not for the same reason he lost the case at the trial level.

As a result, the House can continue to use its rules to limit disclosures despite a 2018 constitutional amendment that made the Legislature subject to the Sunshine Law.

The Tuesday ruling by the Western District Court of Appeals upheld the result of a Cole County case but found it was decided improperly. Mark Pedroli, who filed the lawsuit said it will be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

In its decision, the appeals court sent the case back to Cole County Circuit Judge John Beetem and ordered him to dismiss it. In his January 2023 decision, Beetem granted summary judgment to the House, ruling that it had authority under its rules to limit disclosures under the Sunshine Law.

On Tuesday, in a 2-1 decision, Judge Janet Sutton wrote that Beetem should have dismissed it because Pedroli did not have the right to bring the case in the first place.

“We conclude that Pedroli did not have standing to pursue his claims and therefore, the trial court did not have authority to determine the case’s merits and grant summary judgment to state defendants,” Sutton wrote.

In a dissent, Judge Alok Ahuja criticized the majority for its legal reasoning and refusal to consider the case on its merits. And, Ahuja wrote, Pedroli should prevail.

“Because it is inconsistent with (the constitution), House Rule 127 is unconstitutional, and cannot be invoked to justify the withholding of information which is otherwise responsive to a Sunshine Law request, and which is not exempted from disclosure by the Sunshine Law itself,” Ahuja wrote.

The split decision provides an opening for another appeal, Pedroli said in a statement to The Independent.

“We look forward to applying for transfer to the Supreme Court so these issues of great public importance can be finally resolved to the benefit of all Missourians,” he said.

The case began in 2019, when Pedroli tried to use Sunshine Law to obtain records from lawmakers as part of an investigation into whether people were impersonating constituents in communications with lawmakers.

As part of its first business of the year in 2019, the House added a rule that “constituent case files,” defined to “include any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member and a constituent” could be kept from disclosure.

That rule was cited by the House as justification to redact email addresses, postal addresses and telephone numbers from records Pedroli requested. He sued in October 2019 under the name of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, an organization he founded.

He filed an amended complaint in February 2020, to substitute “Mark Pedroli as the plaintiff, Founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project,” Sutton noted in Tuesday’s majority opinion.

But the original record request was from his firm, Pedroli Law, on behalf of unnamed clients, Sutton wrote. Because his law firm, and not Pedroli himself, was the “aggrieved person” given authority to sue, and he did not establish he was a “taxpayer to, or citizen of, this state” in his pleadings, Pedroli had no case to argue, Sutton wrote.

“Cases from our court have concluded that citizen and resident are not necessarily the same, particularly when the statute at issue specifies which is to be pled and proved for purposes of standing to bring a claim,” she wrote.

No one who lacks standing in a case can be a party, the ruling states.

“Because of this, we in turn lack the authority to address the substantive issues presented, or to grant the appellate relief Pedroli requests,” Sutton wrote.

That reasoning, Ahuja wrote, is absurd.

Pedroli is a resident, operates his law firm in Missouri and is licensed to practice in the state, which is enough to conclude he is a citizen, Ahuja wrote.

His standing as a taxpayer to the state is also not open to question, he wrote.

“Unless he were a scofflaw, Pedroli would necessarily be paying taxes to the state as a Missouri resident, business owner, and worker,” Ahuja wrote.

The Sunshine Law states its provisions “shall be liberally construed” to promote openness, Ahuja wrote as he criticized the majority for its narrow ruling.

The courts give great deference to the Legislature on its operations, in most instances deferring when the question is not defined in law elsewhere. For most of the more than 50 years since the Sunshine Law was enacted, the General Assembly has argued it did not apply to legislative records.

But once a directive to follow the law was added to the constitutional article governing the General Assembly, lawmakers cannot modify it through a rule, Ahuja wrote.

“The House’s argument – that it retains rulemaking authority to exempt its records from the Sunshine Law, despite the people’s adoption of (the constitutional directive) – would render those constitutional amendments meaningless,” Ahuja wrote.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.