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Despite pardon, Missouri Supreme Court rules guilty plea prohibits run for office

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(The Center Square) – Hours after hearing arguments on Monday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled a person who pleaded guilty to a felony but was pardoned by the governor can’t run for the Cass County Commission in August.

In a 5-1 decision and in a 14-page opinion written by Justice W. Brent Powell, the court affirmed a circuit court’s judgement declaring Hershel Young wasn’t qualified to be a candidate for elective public office in the state and ineligible for the primary election on Aug. 6.

“… the legislature has determined anyone who has pleaded guilty to a felony offense under Missouri law is disqualified from holding elective public office,” Powell wrote.

Cass County Clerk Jeff Fletcher didn’t allow Young to be on the ballot and filed a petition in circuit court regarding Young’s status.

“This involved Mr. Young back in the mid 90s,” Christopher Benjamin, Young’s attorney, told the court during arguments. “What happened is somebody spat on his wife. And he later pled guilty for an assault. If there wasn’t a charge for assault in that time, it would have simply been a fight. And a fight from 30 years ago is not a disqualifier for county commission.”

Tyson Ketchum, Fletcher’s attorney, mentioned several court cases affirmed their argument of Young being ineligible. He also argued Missouri law is presumed to be valid and constitutional and Young had to prove the statute clearly violated the constitution.

“A pardon from the governor obliterates the conviction, but the guilt remains,” Ketchum said during arguments. “The relevant disqualifier here is the guilty plea. There’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents the legislature from including this disqualifier in the statute.”

Judge Robin Ransom was the only dissenter and wrote in her opinion she would reverse and send the case back to the circuit court to allow Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey to challenge the constitutional validity of state law. However, she also acknowledged the timing of impending election preparation wouldn’t allow sufficient time for the circuit court.

“Without the required notice to the attorney general, I do not believe this Court should be able to reach arguments touching upon the constitutional validity of the statute in an appeal,” Ransom wrote.

Although he agreed with the majority, Justice Zel Fischer agreed with Ransom’s argument for Bailey to weigh in on Young’s argument regarding the violation of his rights under the constitution.

“… it is an essential aspect of a declaratory judgment action challenging the constitutionality of a state statute because, absent the required notice, the attorney general is deprived of the opportunity to ‘answer or defend, in any proceeding or tribunal in which the state’s interests are involved,’” Fischer wrote.

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