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Ethics Reform Law Undone by Missouri Supreme Court

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Missouri State Supreme Court strikes down 2010 ethics reform
Our state's highest court has just struck down the ethics reform law enacted by the Missouri legislature in 2010. That law, now considered unconstitutional, would have:

  • allowed the state ethics commission to launch its own investigations;
  • criminalized the obstruction of those investigations;
  • restricted the amount of cash political committees can transfer to each other;
  • required all donations above $500 to be reported within two days; and
  • made it a crime for the governor to win votes from lawmakers by offering them jobs

Sound like good ideas? The court might actually agree. We don't know, because they totally sidestepped the ethics reforms in themselves. The real problem, as the court saw it, lay in the sausage-making process that let them through.

The bill's original purpose was simply to change how lawmakers bid for printing, paper and supplies. However, in the last few days of the session, all the ethics stuff listed above was "log-rolled" in, presumably to entice legislators to vote for it.

That's perfectly legal in Washington D.C. Congress does it all the time. However, it's been a no-no under the Missouri Constitution for almost a century and a half, thanks to our "single subject provision" law. 

The point of the that law -- one bill, one purpose -- is to keep things simple and transparent. 

However, the legislature has not been abiding by it. According to a concurring opinion by Justice Zel Fischer, the number of laws struck down for this very reason has been rising for at least a decade (for more, click here).

And the reason senators and reps have been flouting the rule has to do with "judicial severance," wherein the courts surgically remove all non-germane parts of a law after passage.  In other words, our leaders can slip in "pork" to get their bills passed, knowing that the naughty stuff will later be excised.

As long as judges are willing to play baby-sitter and clean up these flawed statutes, Fischer writes, "then individual legislators responding to special interest groups or their own self-interest....will have no incentive to follow the clear and express procedural mandates of the Missouri Constitution."

He advocates dropping judicial severance altogether.

Read the court's opinion here.

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