Missouri voters will get a chance Aug. 5 to decide if the state Constitution's "right to bear arms" language in the Missouri Bill of Rights needs to be changed.
Just four days after hearing arguments in the case, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court ruled Friday that it's too late to change the ballot language for Amendment 5, which lawmakers approved two months ago.
"In 2003, the General Assembly amended (Missouri election law) to include the provision that, except for the death of a candidate, "(no) court shall have the authority to order an individual or issue be placed on the ballot less than six weeks before the date of the election,'" the seven-judge court said in a five-page opinion. "This six-week period prior to the Aug. 5 election ended on June 24, a date that already had passed when the trial court entered its judgment on July 1."
The court said that 2003 state law made courts powerless to order any changes in the proposed amendment - even if judges agreed changes should be made.
The high court's ruling Friday upheld Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem's July 1 opinion that the case was "moot" - that is, there was no ruling he could make to order any Aug. 5 election ballot changes.
Voters won't see the complete, proposed amendment on the ballot - only the ballot summary that's supposed to give voters an idea of what the proposal would do.
The lawmaker-written ballot language reads: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to include a declaration that the right to keep and bear arms is a unalienable right and that the state government is obligated to uphold that right?"
Jefferson City lawyer Chuck Hatfield, who filed the first lawsuit challenging the amendment's ballot language on June 13 - the same day Secretary of State Jason Kander certified it for the Aug. 5 ballot - had argued that the ballot language doesn't meet state law's legal requirement to be "fair and sufficient," because it doesn't give voters enough information about all the changes that lawmakers want voters to pass.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and Jackson County Prosecutor Jeanne Peters-Baker agreed, with Jefferson City lawyer Heidi Vollett filing a separate challenge to the ballot language.
The two lawsuits were combined during the trial in Beetem's court.
In addition to ruling he couldn't make any change to the language on the Aug. 5 ballot, Beetem had rejected the lawsuits' claims that the ballot language needed to be changed.
In a Friday afternoon news release, state Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said: "Through every step of this process, our summary language proved to be fair."
But, Hatfield said Friday afternoon: "The Supreme Court did not rule on the issue of whether the ballot title ... is fair and sufficient."
If voters approve the proposed constitutional changes, Hatfield added: "The Court specifically said that the parties have the right to file a (new) challenge."
Attorney General Chris Koster's office defended the Legislature's ballot language during the trial and Supreme Court hearings.
Koster said Friday afternoon: "We are pleased with the Court's decision to allow this question to go forward, and will continue to defend the ballot language if challenged in the future."
The Supreme Court noted in its five-page ruling that the law being challenged has a deadline for a reason.
"The legislature's decision to establish a "bright line' rule prohibiting court-ordered changes to the ballot within six weeks of an election was not arbitrary," the opinion noted. "It coincides with the printing and availability of absentee ballots, which is to begin six weeks prior to an election.
"In addition, overseas military ballots are to be printed and made available 45 days before an election."
Changing the ballot language inside that six-week limit, the Court said, would mean that "local election authorities would have to reprint ballots. Also, absentee and overseas military voters would be voting on a different ballot title than in-person voters."
That's the kind of election confusion that lawmakers and courts have tried to avoid over the years.
Dempsey noted: "As a Legislature, we value Second Amendment rights, and we want to protect those rights from any future infringements.
"We carefully crafted the language to give voters the final say in how they want to protect their families."
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, was the proposed amendment's chief sponsor.
He said, in the Senate's news release: "It is clear our Founding Fathers held the right to keep and bear arms in the highest regard, and Amendment 5 will further protect that right of Missourians.
"If we allow the erosion of even one constitutional principle because it is the topic of the day, or due to political pressure, then we acknowledge that every one of those rights is vulnerable."
But Hatfield said: "I hope that every voter reads the full text of the measure. Once they do, we believe they will vote no."
Although voters don't see the full language on the ballot, it must be available at the polling place.
The complete language of Amendment 5 - and the other four lawmaker-proposed constitutional amendments on the Aug. 5 ballot - were printed on Page 6C of Thursday's News Tribune.
"The Missouri Constitution has protected the right to bear arms for almost 150 years," Hatfield said. "The proposed changes would result in challenges to most if not all of our gun laws and many of them might be thrown out."