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Nixon sued for eliminating jobs of five administrative law judges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2009 - Henry Herschel, former chief counsel to former Gov. Matt Blunt, is among five former state workers who sued Gov. Jay Nixon today because he eliminated their jobs.

The five, including Herschel, had been among 40 administrative law judges who handle cases within the state's workers compensation program.

Nixon's administration cut five of the jobs, citing budget problems, in the 2010 budget that was approved last session by the Legislature. It takes effect July 1.

But the suit alleges that administrative law judges can't be removed by layoffs, and implies that Nixon eliminated the jobs of Herschel and his four newer colleagues because of politics. All had been named by Blunt, a Republican. Nixon is a Democrat.

(However, Herschel lawyer John D. Comerford said they were not yet prepared to flatly say they were fired for political reasons.)

Said Herschel's lawyer in a statement:

"The law specifically states that Administrative Law Judges can only be removed from office when removal has been recommended by a bipartisan review committee. Missouri appellate courts have confirmed that this statute provides the only means by which these judges can be involuntarily dismissed. These protections were written into the law because our State’s judges must to be able to render independent and impartial decisions without the fear of political reprisals from people who think they have the power to cut judges out of the budget if they don’t like their decisions or their politics.  The Administration’s attempt to terminate these judges directly violates this law....

UPDATE--Nixon press secretary issued the following statement this afternoon:

During these tough economic times, Missouri government has had to take significant steps to reduce spending, just as many Missouri families have had to do. The elimination of these positions as part of these budget-cutting measures was approved by the Republican-controlled legislature in an overwhelming fashion and was part of the final budget that the General Assembly presented to the Governor.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, which oversees the administrative law judges, added, "These positions were eliminated by a budget that was passed by the General Assembly. The individuals were selected based on seniority with the most recently hired positions being terminated."

As Blunt's chief counsel, Herschel found himself in the news -- and in court -- a lot in 2008 because of the controversy over the office's handling of e-mails. Herschel's advice that allowed them to delete e-mails, or refuse to make them available to the public or the press, was cited by Blunt and other aides in the subsequent court battles over those electronic communications.

Herschel also was among the members of Blunt's staff who were sued by Scott Eckersley, a former Blunt lawyer who reported to Herschel. In a suit just recently settled, Eckersley had claimed he was fired because he raised concerns that office e-mails weren't being handled properly by Blunt's staff.

Last fall, thousands of Herschel's e-mails were among more than 60,000 released by lawyers for Blunt and other former aides as part of a settlement of a separate court fight that originated with an;investigative team appointed by then-Attorney General Jay Nixon to probe the controversy.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.