Litigious Age - The Missourian: Opinion

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Litigious Age

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Posted: Saturday, June 2, 2012 6:00 am

We live in a litigious society.

When we feel wronged or persecuted, we turn to lawyers and the courts to resolve our disputes and settle our differences.

Some feel that the proliferation of lawsuits — many of them frivolous — is way out of hand.

Many doctors and business owners feel that way. They say our sue-for-anything culture has blurred the lines between justice and extortion.

Others blame flaws in the legal system that allow just about everyone the right to sue for whatever they want as evidence that the legal system is badly broken.

Franklin County officials understand that we live in a litigious society.

The county has been in the news a lot lately over legal issues. In just the past few months it has been sued by an environmental group, a candidate for county commission and most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU).

The ACLU lawsuit has drawn statewide and national attention, stoking the fires of the separation of church and state issue that always seems to be smoldering in our country.

The county getting sued is not novel. It has been sued before over a variety of matters. Government entities are often the targets of lawsuits. Citizens who feel aggrieved by the actions of public officials turn to the courts. That’s nothing new.

In some cases, the legal actions are completely justifiable and conclude with verdicts against the political subdivision. Political subdivisions and the officials who manage them, make mistakes.

That was the case when the city of Gerald police department allowed a police impersonator and con artist to go on drug raids with its real officers. The people who were arrested sued.

They didn’t win a lot of money but taxpayers are going to have to foot the litigation costs, including possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees depending on how the judge rules in the case.

That happened a few years back when the county was sued (multiple times) over the way it calculated its tax rates. The county eventually had to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers and had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and litigation expenses. Those fees were also borne by taxpayers.

Some lawsuits are inevitable. When the county passed new land use regulations that could allow Ameren Missouri to build a coal ash waste landfill in the Labadie bottoms, it knew it would be challenged in court either by the utility or the environmental group opposing it.

Other lawsuits are harder to fathom. When the county recently tried to refinance millions in bonds it used for past construction and road projects, some citizens — including a candidate for county commission — filed an injunction to block the move. Taxpayers will pay to defend a lawsuit over an action that could ultimately save the county money.

Other lawsuits require discipline by our elected officials to avoid. Take the ACLU lawsuit for instance.

The commission was goaded into allowing prayers before meetings by some of the same group who sued it over the refinancing issue. Prior to this request, the county didn’t start its meeting with a prayer or with the Pledge of Allegiance. Some citizens complained that they should begin meetings with a prayer and the Pledge. The commission agreed.

But some of the prayers offered by Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer crossed the line, according to the ACLU which accused the county of affiliating itself too closely with a specific faith or belief — Christianity.

Many feel the ACLU lawsuit is baseless. Federal courts have upheld the practice of prayers before government meetings so long as they are sectarian in nature.

But either way, taxpayers will pay the freight to settle the matter. Is this a wise use of taxpayer dollars? Some county residents, no doubt, would answer with a resounding yes. Others have told us they would prefer the county avoid these type of issues and instead concern itself with more mundane matters like repairing roads and bridges.

The answer to this question, like many others, comes down to priorities and management. It is something to consider in an election year. There is a large slate of candidates running for two spots on the county commission.

Voters should evaluate the candidates on their priorities and perhaps also on their abilities to manage the county in a litigious age.

We favor, like others, prayers at commission meetings that meet requirements of the Constitution.

Some lawsuits are avoidable, others are not. We need elected officials who understand the difference so all of our taxpayer dollars don’t go to lawyers.

/opinion