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State high court strikes 2010 ethics law

The Missouri Supreme Court has struck down a 2010 ethics law that took a long and twisted path to its final form.

The law, which was once touted as "the most sweeping and comprehensive in the universe," limited transfers between political committees, allowed the Missouri Ethics Commission to initiate its own investigations (as opposed to just responding to complaints), made it a crime to obstruct commission investigations, required donations of more than $500 made during the legislative session to be reported within 48 hours, and made it a crime for governors to offer a lawmaker a job in exchange for a vote.

In a unanimous opinion issued today, the seven justices said the law violated the Missouri Constitution's "original purpose" requirement.

Here's how the events in 2010 played out:

  • The original bill (Senate Bill 844) added a provision to the state's purchasing code that allowed statewide elected officials to use the Office of Administration to determine the lowest bidder for a contract.
  • Senators attached two amendments to the bill - one that dealt with the purchase of supplies, and another that gave lawmakers a key to the Capitol dome.
  • The state House adopted a substitute for the bill, which kept the procurement sections, removed the part about the keys to the dome, repealed or enacted 78 sections of law dealing with campaign finance and ethics violations, and changed the title of the bill to, "relating to the ethical administration of public institutions and officials, with penalty provisions and a contingent effective date for certain sections."
  • On the last day of the regular session, lawmakers passed a version from a conference committee that was entitled "An act … relating to ethics, with penalty provisions." It retained the procurement and dome key provisions, changed a number of other sections, and added a provision that made it a misdemeanor to obstruct an ethics investigation.

John Klebba, the president of Legends Bank, filed suit (one of the changes prohibited state-charted banks from donating to political action committees), alleging that the rule violated the original purpose clause in the state Constitution, as well as the First Amendment.

A judge agreed, and the state Supreme Court upheld that ruling today, though it allowed the provisions relating to procurement to remain.  Judge Zel Fischer, in a concurring opinion, disagreed with severing the procurement provisions.

Reactions are pouring in from elected officials from both parties.  House Speaker Steven Tilley(R, Perryville) says he's disappointed.

"There were some provisions in there that we were proud of," Tilley said.  "First, giving some teeth to the Missouri Ethics Commission, making it a crime to mislead the Ethics Commission in an investigation, eliminating committee-to-committee transfers so there’s more transparency in the process."

Governor Jay Nixon (D) issued the following written statement:

“Senate Bill 844 cleaned up Missouri’s political party committees, expanded contribution reporting requirements, and took numerous other steps to make government operate in a more open and accountable way.  Today’s ruling leaves a significant hole in Missouri’s ethics laws, and the General Assembly must move quickly to get a strong ethics bill on my desk.  In the coming days, I will communicate with the General Assembly about the key components that should be in a strong ethics bill, and we must come together to get these vital laws back on the books.”

Meanwhile, State Representative Jason Kander(D, Kansas City) says he’ll re-file the ethics bill this year.

“It’s a great opportunity to revisit comprehensive ethics reform and pass a clean bill that does what the 2010 bipartisan legislation did, which is, outlaw money laundering in political campaigns," Kander said.

Kander added that his new bill will go farther, as it would include restoring campaign contribution limits.  Kander is also running for Missouri Secretary of State. 

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.