Missouri attorney general appeals term-limits ruling

Friday, February 20, 1998

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)—A federal appeals court could begin reviewing an expected appeal today from Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who lost his first battle to block a ruling against a voter-approved term-limits amendment.

Nixon’s office had asked U.S. district court Judge D. Brook Bartlett on Thursday to delay his own order finding the amendment unconstitutional, but the judge refused.

The state’s request came after Bartlett invalidated the amendment on Wednesday. The law required congressional candidates to declare their views on term limits and would have identified term-limits opponents by special language on election ballots. It was approved by 58 percent of Missouri voters in 1996.

Bartlett said the law violates free speech, illegally imposes additional qualifications on candidates and wrongly shifts legislative powers from Congress and state lawmakers to citizens. His order agreed with a lawsuit filed against the state by St. Louis politician Don Gralike, who has said he would file for Congress sometime after the filing period opens Tuesday.

After Bartlett’s rejection Thursday, Nixon spokeswoman Mary Still said the state would send an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis by overnight mail.

Such haste is key, Nixon said before Thursday’s ruling, because “it is important that we get certainty for the secretary of state on Tuesday morning at 8 a.m.”—the moment Congressional candidates can formally file for office.

“We are doing what we can,” Nixon said, “not to have this decision impede the will of the people to have this on the ballot.”

If Bartlett’s ruling holds up in the 8th Circuit, then starting Tuesday, candidates won’t have to declare their views on term limits when they file, as required by the amendment.

There was some uncertainty Thursday about whether the 8th Circuit could rule before Tuesday’s deadline, though one court official said an appeals panel could move swiftly.

“We can act within 45 minutes if we had to,” said Michael Gans, clerk for the appeals court. “We can move very quickly on these kinds of things. We would look at what the deadlines are as prepared by the parties involved.”

In urging Bartlett to stay his order, Assistant Attorney General Tina Halcomb told the judge that invalidating the amendment could threaten the power of citizens to pass legislation by initiative. She said Gralike’s “perceived harm” caused by the amendment should not influence a law approved by a majority of voters.

“We believe there is a public interest that people know how candidates feel about term limits,” she said. “There’s no harm to (Gralike) if we should be allowed to carry out the laws as written.”

Bartlett disagreed, saying Gralike and future candidates could suffer if special language about their views on term limits were forcibly put next to their names on a ballot.

Characterizing the issue as one of free speech, Bartlett said such constitutional rights supersede state ballot initiatives.

“I am not one that takes lightly taking a stand contrary to voters in the state, but I also am bound by oath … to enforce and protect the U.S. Constitution,” Bartlett said.

Gralike’s attorney, Arthur Benson, later praised Bartlett’s ruling, saying the amendment was “as blatantly unconstitutional a piece of state legislation as I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of practicing law.” He said Nixon should stop defending the law “before he wastes any more taxpayer money.”

Under the amendment, a Missouri ballot would state: “Disregarded voter instruction on term limits.” Non-incumbent candidates who refused to sign a pledge in favor of term limits would have their names marked: “Declined to pledge to support term limits.”

Attorneys for the state have insisted ballot labels add no qualification to candidates and that Missouri had a right to print “educational” information next to a candidate’s name.

Term limits has become a significant issue for Nixon, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Christopher Bond. Nixon has said he would serve only two terms if elected, but has not decided whether he would seek a third term as attorney general if he loses to Bond.