Nixon: Missouri Supreme Court decision leaves 'significant hole' in ethics laws

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 | 8:41 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Ethics Commission lost some of its investigatory powers Tuesday and the public lost access to some campaign finance reports when the state Supreme Court invalidated a 2010 ethics law because of the way it was passed by lawmakers.

The high court's decision means candidates for the legislature and statewide offices will no longer have to publicly report contributions of $500 or more within 48 hours of receiving them while the legislature is in session. The decision also revokes a ban on certain committee-to-committee money transfers that had been intended to make it easier for the public to track the original source of contributions.

As a result of the ruling, the Ethics Commission will lose its power to launch investigations by unanimous votes. It will instead revert to a prior law allowing it to act only after receiving a complaint about a potential campaign finance or ethics violation by an elected official, candidate or lobbyist.

"The law contained certain items important to the commission's daily operations and enforcement," stated a release from the Ethics Commission. "The result of the decision deals a blow to the commission's ability to enforce and administer the law."

Some lawmakers said Tuesday they would attempt to re-enact much of the 2010 law by passing another measure during the session that runs through mid-May. Gov. Jay Nixon encouraged them to do so.

"Today's ruling leaves a significant hole in Missouri's ethics laws," Nixon, a Democrat, said in a written statement. "And the General Assembly must move quickly to get a strong ethics bill on my desk."

The Missouri Supreme Court's unanimous decision affirms a March 31 ruling by Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green. Green ruled that the 2010 ethics law violated a section of the Missouri Constitution prohibiting legislators from amending a bill to change its original purpose. Green put a hold on the effect of his ruling pending the appeal to the state Supreme Court.

As originally introduced, Senate Bill 844 allowed statewide elected officials to use the Office of Administration to determine the best bids for their contracts. The high court let stand the provisions related to government contracting but struck down everything else.

The sections relating to campaign finance and ethics requirements "are not logically connected or germane to procurement, which was the original purpose," Chief Justice Richard Teitelman wrote in the Supreme Court's decision.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Zel Fischer said he would have struck down even the sections about government contracting and would have put a permanent halt to "the judicially created doctrine" that allows courts to sever unconstitutional parts of legislation while allowing other sections to stand. Fischer said the severance doctrine "amounts to judges being allowed to draft legislation" and may also subvert a governor's veto authority.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said he hadn't yet read the Supreme Court ruling but would support efforts to revive stricken portions of the law, especially sections granting greater investigatory powers to the Ethics Commission. He said the sections restricting committee-to-committee money transfers also served an important purpose, because Missouri allows contributions of unlimited amounts.

"Whereas it may be unappealing to see a candidate get a $100,000 contribution or a $250,000 contribution, at least there is a line between the donor and the candidate to where people see it and you can ask questions," Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said.

Rep. Jason Kander, who was one of the sponsors of the 2010 law, said the measure brought "much needed transparency to our campaign finance system" and should be restored before the 2012 elections take place.

"The court's ruling today makes it imperative that we act this legislative session to immediately cut off the ability of politicians to launder money and obscure the source of their political contributions," Kander, D-Kansas City, said. He is also running for secretary of state.

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