JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in a case involving the constitutionality of the voter registration requirement for state representatives.
Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, may or may not have a primary race against his contender Rachel Johns because she only registered in the 76th District in February of 2015. Currently, to run for office, a person must have been registered in the district they wish to serve for two years if they want to become a state representative.
Johns’ attorney David Roland did not dispute the facts of the case, namely that she registered too late to fill the deadline. Instead he argued before the court that the registration requirement violated Johns’ First and 14th Amendment rights to free expression and equal protection.
Roland said that Johns declined to register earlier because of her political objections to the government regarding the shooting of Michael Brown and the mismanagement of the subsequent civil unrest in Ferguson.
“For us, it has intense political meaning,” Roland told the press after oral arguments. “We don’t believe the political system currently represents us, we think it’s broken, and we do not believe that we can endorse that system by registering to vote. The US Supreme Court said that is an expressive protest… it has First Amendment weight.”
Johns moved to the state the day after Brown was killed, while civil unrest was still occurring in Ferguson. The 76th district is located in North St. Louis County, but does not include the Ferguson area.
However, that argument did not sway Judge Julian Bush of the St. Louis Circuit Court, which prompted Johns and Roland to appeal. Matthew Vianello, Peters’ attorney, argued that Bush’s objection should be upheld by Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and the six other justices when Bush said “making sure the candidate nominated or elected by the voters is eligible to serve is a legitimate and powerful interest.”
Judge Mary Russell appeared to have initial concerns about striking down a Missouri state constitutional provision that has existed for over 140 years.
“No one has brought this challenge to us before,” Russell said.
Russell also questioned if the claim had significant merit because it was a temporary, rather than a permanent, burden.
Vianello also offered that Johns could not prove she met the dual criteria required for political speech under the Supreme Court’s definition: that it could convey a message and that people could reasonably interpret said message.
Attorney General Chris Koster’s office intervened on the case, taking Peters’ side. Solicitor General James Layton said that Johns’ knowingly violated the constitutional requirement to become an elected official when she declined to register.
“She’s presumed to know the law,” Layton told the jurists. “So when she made this conscious decision, she is required to know the law and that she knows she cannot run for office. She chose to say, ‘I’m going to disqualify myself from running for office.’”
Roland countered that people broke laws they found constitutional all the time and that the registration requirement to become a legislator was crafted in 1865 to guarantee that only white males loyal to the Union after the Civil War could hold office.
Johns’ attorney also noted that the lawsuit itself and an attempted, but failed, restraining order levied against Johns to prevent her from campaigning hurt the democratic process by restricting choice for constituents in the district.
“As of right now, if Ms. Johns is knocked off the ballot, there will be no choice,” Roland said. “Mr. Peters will be their representative, whether they want him or not.”
Vianello countered that candidates must challenge each other because the Secretary of State’s office essentially acted as a “rubber stamp” when people said they fulfill the qualifications to run for office.
For Peters part, he said this case was not merely a way to avoid a primary.
“I’ve been tested in my past primary election in 2013, and it quite shows that a political family that has been in politics for 27 years was overturned by my election,” Peters said. “I am not afraid to face anyone in a primary election.”
Roland said that should they not win the majority of the bench that he would take the case to a higher court, even if it had to go as far as the US Supreme Court.