High court mulls whether felon can stay in office

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A western Missouri county official asked the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday to let him remain in office although he previously pleaded guilty to a felony.

Herschel Young, who pleaded guilty in 1995 to assault after hitting someone who spat on his wife, was elected presiding commissioner in Cass County last year. However, a state law that took effect in 2007 makes felons ineligible to be candidates for public office, and a trial judge in February ordered that Young be removed from his post.

Young, 44, said that law is unfair and should be found unconstitutional. He said people should be allowed to hold office after they have completed their punishment for misdeeds.

"What makes somebody's past make them a worse leader than someone else?" said Young in an interview outside the state Supreme Court's chamber. "In the Bible, it says do not hold the sins of my youth against me. Nobody in this world can throw a rock, everybody has got a sin of some sort. I've never claimed to be perfect."

Young, a Republican, defeated incumbent official Gary Mallory, a Democrat. Young has remained the presiding commissioner in Cass County, which is south of Kansas City, but he said he has been in "limbo" because of the legal challenge and is unable to participate in commission meetings, vote or sign contracts.

At issue is a Missouri law that states no one shall "qualify as a candidate for elective public office in the state of Missouri who has been convicted of or found guilty of our pled guilty to a felony under the laws of this state."

Attorney Charlie Dickman, who represented Young, said the law's restrictions cannot be applied to Young because it would amount to an additional penalty that was not in place when he pleaded guilty. In addition, Dickman said there is no basis to strip Young of his position because the law applies to candidacy and not to fitness to actually hold the office.

The Cass County prosecutor's office had sought the court order, alleging Young could not serve as presiding commissioner because of the felony on his record. The prosecuting attorney is a Democrat.

Arguing the case was assistant prosecutor Scott Wright, who said the restrictions upon felons running for office were in place several years before Young filed to run for the county office and did not force him to do anything new. Wright said political candidates have no right to presume that election laws will never be changed and warned that invalidating the restrictions could lead to a road where no new law could be enforced on anyone who already was born before the statute was enacted.

Wright said one of the qualifications for someone to serve in an elected office is to have met the requirements to be a valid candidate for it.

Missouri Chief Justice Richard Teitelman questioned whether the removal of someone who already has won an election could impede the rights of voters.

Wright said the Missouri Legislature chose to bar felons from running for office to help ensure public confidence and trust.

"The people are served through the enforcement of that law," he said.

Arguments before the high court Thursday also focused on whether the candidacy restriction was valid because it only applies to felonies in Missouri and does not address crimes that were committed elsewhere.

The case was among the first heard since Judge George W. Draper III was appointed last month to join the seven-judge court.

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