A citizen who is suing the Franklin County Commission said he is “very pleased” with the Missouri Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling reversing the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the formation of the county’s new municipal court.
But County Counselor Mark Vincent said the ruling is “no big deal” because the court did not rule on the merits of the case but focused on the smaller issue of the plaintiffs’ legal standing to file suit.
“It’s much to do over nothing,” Vincent said.
The court this week ruled that plaintiffs Art LeBeau and Eric Reichert, both of Villa Ridge, have standing to proceed with their suit which alleges that a Missouri House bill authorizing the county municipal court is unconstitutional.
Vincent stressed that the high court did not rule in the plaintiffs’ favor on the constitutional issue. He said he thinks the county will win on the actual merits of the case.
Associate Circuit Judge Robert Schollmeyer dismissed the suit on the argument that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue on the issue.
Since Schollmeyer’s ruling was reversed, the county is prepared to argue the case, Vincent said.
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to circuit court for trial.
LeBeau said the Supreme Court’s ruling was “exactly” what he and Reichert have been stating in the case since “day one.”
“This court has repeatedly held that taxpayers do, in fact, have a legally protectable interest in the proper use and expenditure of public dollars,” the supreme court stated in its opinion.
Legislators and county officials should be required to follow the state Constitution, LeBeau said, adding that the lawsuit has nothing to do with the municipal court itself.
The lawsuit charges that the House bill authorizing the court was unconstitutional by containing two subject matters. The original bill was about juvenile courts and then was amended by State Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, to include language about municipal courts, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also states that the legislation was unconstitutional because the original subject matter of the bill was changed.
The language that was added to the bill concerned the amount of population a county must have in order to have a municipal court
Assistant County Counselor Matt Becker of Union, who is representing the county in the case, has said that the subject matters were similar because they both dealt with courts.
But LeBeau said the subjects were different because one dealt with juvenile courts and the other dealt with county government.
The county argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue because they were not directly impacted by the municipal court, such as being charged for a speeding ticket.
But the supreme court’s ruling states, “The taxpayers’ interest in the litigation ultimately derives from the need to ensure that government officials conform to the law.”
Moreover, the ruling says the plaintiffs’ lawsuit is “based on the public interests implicated by the unlawful expenditure of money generated through taxation.”
LeBeau said he thinks the Supreme Court’s ruling went beyond just saying the plaintiffs have standing to file the lawsuit. He said the Supreme Court went as far as to say the House bill authorizing the court was unconstitutional.
But Vincent said the Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the bill.
A Missourian analysis of the Supreme Court’s opinion found that there is no clear assertion by the court that the House bill was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruling focuses on the standing issue, leaving the other issues in the case, such as the constitutionality of the bill, up to the circuit court to decide.
At issue now are the “single subject” and “original purpose” provisions of the Missouri Constitution.
The purpose of these provisions is to prevent the Legislature from slipping legislation through the General Assembly by tacking on unrelated amendments.
It appears that the question for the circuit court to decide now is whether municipal court and juvenile court are too unrelated to be combined in the same bill.
The Supreme Court ruling states that the single purpose and original purpose provisions, “serve to facilitate orderly procedure, avoid surprise, and prevent ‘logrolling’ in which several matters that would not individually command a majority vote are rounded up into a single bill to ensure passage.”
Moreover, the ruling says that the single subject provision requires that all of the issues in a bill “fairly relate to, have a natural connection with, or are a means to accomplish the subject of the bill as expressed in the title.”
The original purpose provision says that “no bill may be amended so as to change its original purpose and prohibits the introduction of a matter that is not germane to the object of the legislation or that is unrelated to its original subject,” the ruling states.
In the Supreme Court hearing, Becker, the county’s attorney in the matter, said, “When you really think about it, a county municipal court and a juvenile court are in fact two divisions within the circuit court.”
Vincent agreed, saying the subjects of juvenile court and municipal court are close enough in similarity since they both deal with the court system.
But in his lawsuit, LeBeau asserts that juvenile courts and county municipal courts are unrelated. He said juvenile courts and county municipal court fall under different sections of the constitution. Juvenile courts fall under “Public Health and Welfare” and county municipal court falls under “County, Township and Political Subdivision Government,” LeBeau’s lawsuit states.
Becker said there was also a Senate bill that contained language to establish the county municipal court. But LeBeau said that the Senate bill is also unconstitutional for containing multiple subject matters.
LeBeau maintains that the circuit court will “definitely rule” that the bill is unconstitutional and that he will prevail in the case.
“The county will be very unhappy,” he said.
People who have been found guilty in the court could have a cause of action if the court is declared void, LeBeau added. It is up to those individuals who have been defendants in the court to decide what they will do, LeBeau said
A smart lawyer could make a lot of money in a class action lawsuit, he said.
He said he does not plan to seek an injunction against the county to stop the court from operating while the lawsuit goes forward.
The Supreme Court also overruled two other county motions to dismiss the case. One motion to dismiss charged that the lawsuit was frivolous while another said the plaintiffs’ suit did not comply with court rules.