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Missouri Supreme Court Weighs Farming, Gun Rights Measures

15:46PM Feb 26, 2015

Lawmakers used "cleverly chosen words" to deceive residents about the potential impact of constitutional amendments that strengthened gun and agricultural rights in Missouri, voters challenging the new laws told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Farmers, gun control activists and other groups that sued the state after voters approved the two ballot measures in August also said the measures could have unintended consequences, such as allowing convicted felons to own weapons or grant more rights to foreign agriculture companies.

But amendment supporters told the judges, who didn't immediately rule on the case Wednesday, that the plaintiffs missed deadlines in filing their lawsuits. They also said questions on the ballots were clear.

"There is zero evidence for this court to look at that anybody was misled," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, named as a defendant because he sponsored the gun rights amendment in the Legislature. Schaefer also is running for attorney general in 2016.

One amendment expanded the right to bear arms to include "ammunition and related accessories," and removed a provision that allowed restrictions on concealed guns. The ballot also said the amendment wouldn't prevent legislators from "limiting the rights of certain felons and certain individuals adjudicated as having a mental disorder."

Felons are using the measure in court in their fight to regain rights to own weapons. An attorney for the opponents, Chuck Hatfield, said it could open the door to allowing concealed carry of firearms in public places, such as football stadiums.

The other amendment states that "the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed." Some supporters said it would protect farmers from further restrictions on genetically modified crops and animal farming, but local farmers and farming groups said the change could provide foreign and corporate agriculture businesses more rights in the state.

Opponents said the descriptions listed on the ballots ignored the potential consequences of both amendments and tricked voters.

"This case is really about using cleverly chosen words to get a certain electoral result," attorney Anthony DeWitt, who represented farmers suing the state, told the judges.

Some judges questioned whether it was appropriate to intervene after voters approved the amendments and, if they did step in, whether the language was actually misleading.

The judges gave no indication when they would rule. If the Supreme Court rules the measures were misleading, judges could opt to reword the amendment descriptions on the ballot and send them back to voters.

The cases highlight time constraints that residents face if they believe ballot measures are unfairly worded. Residents have 10 days to challenge a measure after it's been certified by the secretary of state, which could prevent cases from being heard if the proposals are finalized too close to the date of an election.

That's what happened when St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson first tried to challenge the gun rights amendment before the August election, arguing that it ignored sweeping potential changes to the state's existing gun laws. But the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that no changes could be made to the description on the ballots so close to the election, even though the descriptions were approved by the Legislature in May and certified in June.

Still, "clearly the intent of the law is that there be an ability to have that review," Judge Laura Denvir Stith said.

The lawsuit challenging the farming rights amendment was filed later because plaintiffs had too little time to do so ahead of the election, DeWitt said.

Lawyers representing the state argued Dotson and other opponents missed their opportunity to make changes after Missourians voted on the issues.

The plaintiffs' cases could hinge on whether judges consider potentially misleading wording an election irregularity, which would give the Supreme Court leeway to void the election results.