Missouri’s House displayed unusual constitutional discipline during this summer’s anti-crime special session.
House leaders obeyed a state constitutional provision which requires a bill be limited to a single subject.
It was a major change.
Increasingly, the legislature has created “bloated whale” bills by piling unrelated issues into a single bill to facilitate passage of separate ideas.
The special session began going down the same path.
The Senate jammed all the governor’s anti-crime ideas into a single bill to cover witness protection, juvenile crimes, St. Louis city police residency, child endangerment and weapons transfer.
The whale bill appeared to be on the legislative fast-track.
But the House refused to consider the Senate’s bill after Gov. Mike Parson’s surprise expansion of his special session call to include giving the Republican state attorney general murder prosecution powers in St. Louis city if the Democratic circuit attorney did not file charges within 90 days.
House leaders decided to split the governor’s proposals into separate bills.
They issued a statement explaining their approach was “to protect the integrity of the lawmaking process, and to ensure these important issues are thoroughly vetted.”
That approach did not seem to delay the process in the House, confirming my suspicion that a bloated whale bill took almost as much legislative time as single-topic bills would have required.
But the House approach fell apart in the Senate which attached the circuit attorney issue to a House-passed bill dealing just with allowing hearsay evidence if a criminal defendant attempted to intimidate a witness.
The witness provision had bipartisan support. Not a single House Democrat had voted against it.
But when the Senate added undercutting the St. Louis circuit attorney’s authority, it had an unintended consequence.
Solid opposition from Democrats blocked approval of an emergency clause that would have put the law into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.
As a result, if the governor gets to sign the Senate version, prosecutors across the state will be denied for a few months a powerful tool in going after criminals.
That delay could be longer.
In 2012, Missouri’s Supreme Court rejected a whale bill noting the state Constitution prohibits changing a bill from “it’s original purpose.”
It’s hard to understand how the Senate version defining the purpose as “relating to criminal procedure” is not a major change from the original subject of the House bill limited to just “the offense of tampering with a witness or victim.”
Beyond that, in 1994, the court struck down a whale bill citing “logrolling” to combine unrelated provisions to get a majority vote.
This year, what were Senate Democrats to do? Vote for a witness protection measure they supported or against restricting powers of the Democratic city prosecutor?
The partisan elements of this issue were enormous by handing to a Republican white, male authority to take over murder cases from St. Louis city’s elected female, black circuit attorney.
Earlier this year, Parson vetoed a whale bill. His veto letter charged the 37 provisions of the bill did not comply with the constitutional requirement of one topic for a bill.
His veto letter noted some of the provisions never had a public committee hearing.
That’s just like the circuit attorney provision which never got a legislative committee hearing.
The House did not take up Parson’s last minute proposal or hold a committee hearing on it.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had a couple of bills dealing with the circuit attorney that could have been heard in committee, but that did not happen.
Instead, the Senate chose the faster approach of simply adding the circuit attorney idea on the last day of full Senate consideration of the House bill.
As a result, Circuit Attorney Gardner did not have an opportunity to defend herself in a public legislative hearing to Republican charges of inadequate pursuit of felony cases.
It will be interesting to see if the House or the governor upholds the principles they cited or, if not, the Missouri Supreme Court reaffirms prior decisions.