JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Rep. Josh Peters and Rachel Johns have taken their 76th District primary race to the courts this spring with Peters arguing that Johns has not fulfilled the requirements to run for state representative in his district.
Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court heard the case and handed down a 4-3 ruling Friday, in favor of Peters. The court also said they would not take the case under any kind of reconsideration, essentially allowing Peters to retain his seat next year as he has no other opponents in that race.
Peters,D-St. Louis, said he was pleased the court ruled in his favor.
“To see the vote count was very close, it lets me know it’s a tough legal question that needed to be answered,” he said. “I took an oath to defend the Missouri constitution, and my reason for filing the suit was to uphold that oath and the integrity of our electoral process in the state.”
“I wholeheartedly respect Rachel Johns’ position, but she was wrong.”
He also thanked Attorney General Chris Koster for intervening in the case on his behalf.
Johns’ attorney, Dave Roland, expressed his and his clients’ disappointment in the decision.
“We are, of course, very frustrated with the outcome,” Roland said in an e-mail. “Despite more than four decades’ worth of U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions stating that voters’ rights are “heavily burdened” when a law prevents voters from considering more than one or two candidates in an election, four judges on the Missouri Supreme Court have now concluded that the rights of the voters in State House District 76 are not heavily burdened even though they only have one candidate listed on the ballot.”
Peters argued because Johns had not registered to vote in the district until February of 2015, she did not meet one of Missouri’s constitutional requirements to run for state representative. Johns, who had severe doubts in the sincerity of government after the events in Ferguson in 2014, argued that she did not register to vote as an act of protest against a “broken” system of government. She said not registering to vote was an exercise of her First Amendment rights and that disallowing her to run for office violated her rights under the First and 14th Amendments.
The majority opinion, written by Judge Mary Russell, held that the government had not violated Johns’ rights and that the registration requirement was constitutional.
“Johns’ failure to register to vote does not qualify as symbolic speech,” Russell wrote. “On this record, the only evidence that her failure to register was motivated by a desire to protest the political system is her own statements to that effect.
“While this Court does not doubt the sincerity of Johns’ motivations both in abstaining from political involvement and now seeking an active role in government, the record is devoid of any communicative elements accompanying her conduct to activate First Amendment protections. The law of symbolic speech clearly teaches that there must be more than mere conduct.”
Russell defended the registration requirement, writing that the state had a vested interest in regulating that candidates for state representative “demonstrate sufficient seriousness about the electoral systems and social and civic engagement” by registering to vote.
Judges Paul Wilson, Zel Fischer and George Draper concurred in the majority.
However, Judge Laura Denvir Stith, joined by Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and Judge Richard Teitelman, ruled in favor of Johns, writing that while Johns specifically did not have firm standing to say her freedom of speech was violated, the two-year voter registration requirement, although temporary, places a substantial burden on any potential candidate’s First and 14th Amendment rights.
Stith also said that the state’s interest in “sufficient seriousness” was dubious at best, especially since nothing in the constitution states that candidates must hold those beliefs to run.
“While having candidates who are serious and committed to the electoral process and have an established stake in the administration of local government may be desirable, surely the State is not suggesting that it could constitutionally limit the ability to run for office to only those persons who display those characteristics,” she wrote.
“Indeed, while all citizens may wish their fellow voters and elected officials to display these characteristics, if proof that elected officials actually display such characteristics were required, then there would be an abundance of cases brought throughout the courts of this and every state as candidates contested whether their opponents adequately displayed these civic virtues.”
Roland did not rule out further legal challenge on the case, but because of the way in which the Court ruled, the only legal avenue would be seeking review with the US Supreme Court. Roland said he and Johns were determining if they wanted to take that path. However, because of the amount of time that would take, that will not be able to salvage Johns’ hopes to run for election this cycle.
The full opinions from Russell and Stith can be read here.
Updated – 12a.m. May 23, 2016: With comments from Peters and Roland