Bill gives Missouri House, Senate leaders authority over when legislature intervenes in court

The top Democrat in the House said she believes the provision is to address concerns her party raised last year over briefs filed in the Medicaid expansion case

By: - June 20, 2022 12:00 pm
Missouri Capitol

A bill awaiting Gov. Mike Parson's signature would give House and Senate leadership sole authority to intervene on behalf of the Missouri legislature in court (Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).

A bill awaiting action by Gov. Mike Parson would muzzle Democratic minorities by giving legislative leaders sole authority to intervene on behalf of the House or Senate in court cases.

During last year’s court battle over implementing Medicaid expansion, GOP House leadership filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief on behalf of the entire House of Representatives. Democrats objected, claiming the brief broke House rules, and filed one of their own asking the Missouri Supreme Court to disregard the House’s brief.

The new provision, said House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, is the Republican supermajority’s response to those complaints.

“I am not shocked to see it, but it is a bit frustrating,” Quade said of the provision, “because the speaker is one elected official. While we do vote to appoint him as speaker, we’ve always had to do the resolutions to speak on behalf of the entire body.”

Included in the final pages of a wide-ranging elections bill that would require a photo ID to vote is language that grants the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem the authority to intervene at any time in legal action on behalf of the House of Representatives, Senate or General Assembly.

Lawmakers, either individually or in a group, would not be permitted to do so or “or obtain legal counsel at public expense” in their capacity as members of the House or Senate. The provisions also authorize the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem to hire legal counsel other than the attorney general.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz speaks on the Senate floor on Feb. 22, 2022 (Madeline Carter/Missouri Independent).

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said to ensure the House and Senate are represented in litigation, it makes sense the decision would come from the chambers’ leadership. Waiting for a vote of the entire body to authorize the move may not be feasible when lawmakers are only in session from January to May, he said.

“It’s critical that the House and Senate leadership have a role and responsibility,” Schatz said. “That’s probably just a clarification to make sure that there isn’t more signals or more opinions coming from those particular legislative bodies.”

House Speaker Rob Vescovo did not respond to a request for comment.

The language was added to the bill in the final weeks of the legislative session by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. The bill has yet to be signed into law by Parson.

On the Senate floor in May, Eigel said the intent of the amendment is to ensure the legislature has standing to intervene in lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Missouri’s election laws. A provision stipulates that in state or federal civil lawsuits public officials don’t have the authority to agree to an order or settlement that “nullifies, suspends, enjoins, alters, or conflicts with any provision of chapters 115 to 128” — the sections of Missouri’s election laws.

The amendment goes on to include language regarding the leadership’s authority — which Quade said she believes would apply to more than just election-related lawsuits. Eigel and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, could not be reached for comment.

Medicaid briefs

Crystal Quade
Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, answers questions during a press conference on the final day of the 2022 legislative session on May 13, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

When the House Speaker has the authority to intervene in lawsuits on behalf of the entire legislative body became a point of contention last year when Quade and Assistant Minority Floor Leader Rep. Richard Brown, D-Kansas City, questioned the filing of an amicus brief on behalf of the House.

In a letter last year to Vescovo and House Chief Clerk Dana Rademan Miller, Quade and Brown alleged House rules had been violated by hiring outside counsel to file the brief. To assert a legal position on behalf of the full House, a resolution requiring a vote of the chamber was needed, they argued.

In response, Quade and Brown filed an amicus brief of their own in the Medicaid expansion case. The brief, filed by the House Democrats’ general counsel, noted that while a majority of lawmakers would likely have authorized the amicus brief to be filed, “political realities do not diminish the necessity of upholding the requirement that members of the Missouri House must be afforded the opportunity to vote on these matters.

“This is particularly true for members of the minority party, as circumventing the Missouri House’s process signals to Missourians that unless they are represented by a member of the majority party, their voice does not matter,” the brief read.

If signed into law, it’s unclear if the provisions authorizing the House Speaker’s authority to intervene in lawsuits would supersede the House rules. Quade said she expects House rules would be changed next session based on the bill.

Quade said in her time in the legislature, lawmakers previously encountered the issue of when the House speaker has authority to intervene on behalf of the House when a 2019 law criminalizing abortions after eight weeks became the center of a challenge to when signatures could be collected to force a referendum on new laws.

In that instance, an amicus brief was filed on behalf of then-House Speaker Elijah Haahr, Schatz and bill sponsor Rep. Nick Schroer, “in their official capacities as members and officers of the Missouri General Assembly,” the brief read.

Haahr and Schroer were represented by the general counsel for the House of Representatives, while Schatz was represented by the Senate majority caucus’ general counsel.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.