The Franklin County Commission acted appropriately when it voted to attempt to recoup the costs of defending an appeal from critics who are challenging the legality of the Franklin County Municipal Court.
The original lawsuit was dismissed by a trial court judge last month and two of the original plaintiffs in the case have appealed the decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals.
Those plaintiffs took exception to the commission’s decision Tuesday to seek approval from a judge to have the county’s attorney fees paid by the plaintiffs if the county prevails on appeal.
They contend the move by the county is an attempt to silence critics and chill their constitutional rights to question and petition the government.
They are wrong.
As citizens of the county, the critics have every right to challenge the commission. And they do on a regular basis.
Criticizing the government is an essential part of our country’s heritage and is embedded in the First Amendment. It is the duty of citizens to question, to criticize, and debate the actions of the government in a democracy.
Sometimes that criticism can even take the form of legal action which is, at times, appropriate and necessary. But when citizens resort to the courts they have to play by the court’s rules.
One of those rules holds that if you file a frivolous lawsuit or one that is vexatious in nature you can be required to pay the other party’s attorney fees if you lose. Courts rarely award attorney’s fees but the rule is there so people don’t abuse the court system.
While criticizing the government is appropriate, harassing public officials is not. The lawsuit the plaintiffs filed is without merit. So was the one they filed previously which was also dismissed.
The plaintiffs are entitled to appeal the trial court’s decision. But they are subject to the same rules as everyone else even if they are challenging the government. They should be held accountable if the appeals court finds they are wasting its time or acting in a vexatious manner.