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Friday, April 1, 2011

Missouri ethics laws struck down

Missouri ethics laws struck down


JEFFERSON CITY | Ethics laws meant to prevent Missouri politicians from laundering campaign money were struck down in court on Thursday.
A Cole County Circuit Court judge threw out the measures passed by lawmakers last year on procedural grounds but also found that one aspect of the law violated the First Amendment.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said the state would appeal the ruling and would encourage candidates to continue following the laws until the issue is resolved.
The bill’s sponsor, former Senate leader Charlie Shields, said he believes the matter will end up before the Missouri Supreme Court.
The ethics package, passed in SB 844 last May, bans certain cash transfers between campaign committees and places restrictions on who may donate to one type of committee, known as PACs, among other provisions.
The intent, lawmakers said, was to prevent donations from being funneled through several committees to obscure their source.
The lawsuit challenged one section of the law, which specified that only certain types of businesses may contribute to PACs, but excluded banks, credit unions and a handful of other industries.
Legends Bank filed suit, arguing that its constitutional rights to free speech were infringed by the prohibition on political donations.
Lawmakers have said the exclusion of banks and others from the bill was a mistake, and the House this year already has passed legislation correcting the problem.
The court found in favor of Legends Bank on the First Amendment issue, but a procedural matter is what led the court to completely void the ethics language. Judge Daniel R. Green ruled that SB 844 contained more than one subject — a violation of the state constitution.
When it was first introduced, the bill dealt exclusively with state government procurement issues and had nothing to do with political ethics. It was later amended to add the ethics language and another provision.
The existence of those multiple subjects makes the law invalid, Green found, and requires the court to find the “original controlling purpose” of the bill to determine which aspects of it should be upheld.
Since the bill started as a procurement law, those pieces of the law should be upheld while all others are thrown out.
“The provisions of the bill relating to government procurement … will be severed from the remainder of the bill and left intact,” Green wrote. “The remainder of the bill is unconstitutional.”
Current and former lawmakers involved with the bill’s passage were dismayed with the judicial decision but hopeful the ethics laws could be ultimately upheld or passed again in the legislature.
House Speaker Steven Tilley and House Majority Leader Tim Jones both suggested that the bill fixing the bank language could be amended to reinstate the entire ethics package, although that may be difficult to do in the waning weeks of the current session.

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