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Cope v. Parson

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

April 16, 2019

DARRELL COPE and the MISSOURI DEMOCRATIC PARTY, Appellants,
v.
MICHAEL L. PARSON and MIKE KEHOE, Respondents.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COLE COUNTY The Honorable Jon E. Beetem, Judge

          ZEL M. FISCHER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         Darrell Cope and the Missouri Democratic Party ("MDP") appeal the circuit court's dismissal of a petition seeking a declaratory judgment that Governor Michael L. Parson's appointment of Mike Kehoe to the office of Lieutenant Governor was unauthorized, per § 105.030.[1] The circuit court concluded Cope and the MDP had no standing to bring this action, private citizens lack the authority to seek the removal of a public official through litigation and that the Governor of Missouri has the authority to appoint a Lieutenant Governor in the event of a vacancy. The circuit court's judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

         Factual and Procedural History[2]

         Michael L. Parson previously served as Missouri's Lieutenant Governor, an office he held until the resignation of Governor Eric Greitens. Governor Parson then succeeded Greitens to the office of Governor, leaving the office of Lieutenant Governor vacant. Governor Parson appointed Mike Kehoe to be the Lieutenant Governor. The day of Kehoe's appointment, Cope and the MDP filed a petition seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against Governor Parson and Kehoe in the circuit court of Cole County. The petition alleged Governor Parson lacked legal authority, per § 105.030, to appoint a Lieutenant Governor and that the office must remain vacant until the next general election in 2020.

         Governor Parson and Kehoe filed a motion to dismiss the petition claiming a private litigant does not have the authority to remove the Lieutenant Governor from office, that Cope and the MDP lacked standing to assert their claims, and that the Governor has the authority to appoint a Lieutenant Governor under article IV, § 4 of the Missouri Constitution. The circuit court held a hearing on Governor Parson and Kehoe's motion to dismiss. During the hearing, Cope and the MDP withdrew their request for injunctive relief, leaving only a request for declaratory relief regarding the validity of Governor Parson's appointment of Kehoe.

         The circuit court sustained the State's motion to dismiss, concluding Cope and the MDP did not have associational or taxpayer standing to challenge Governor Parson's appointment of Kehoe. Cope and the MDP filed a direct appeal to this Court.[3]

         Standard of Review

         "This Court reviews the trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo." Mo. Municipal League v. State, 489 S.W.3d 765, 767 (Mo. banc 2016). If the dismissal is justified on any ground included in the motion to dismiss, the circuit court's judgment will be affirmed. Reed v. Reilly Co., LLC, 534 S.W.3d 809, 811 (Mo. banc 2017). "A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted is solely a test of the adequacy of the petition." Bromwell v. Nixon, 361 S.W.3d 393, 398 (Mo. banc 2012). "When considering whether a petition fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, this Court must accept all properly pleaded facts as true, giving the pleadings their broadest intendment, and construe all allegations favorably to the pleader." Id.

         Analysis

         The issues of this case boil down to whether petitioners have standing to bring this declaratory judgment action and, if so, whether the Governor has the authority to appoint a Lieutenant Governor. Last at issue is whether this Court should even entertain the questions presented, as the State contends any opinion rendered in this case would be advisory in nature.

         Standing

         "Standing is a question of law, which is reviewed de novo." Manzara v. State, 343 S.W.3d 656, 659 (Mo. banc 2011). For a declaratory judgment action, the petitioner must "have a legally protectable interest at stake in the outcome of the litigation." State ex rel. Kan. City Power & Light Co. v. McBeth, 322 S.W.3d 525, 531 (Mo. banc 2010). This exists "if the plaintiff is directly and adversely affected by the action in question or if the plaintiff's interest is conferred by statute." Weber v. St. Louis Cnty., 342 S.W.3d 318, 323 (Mo. banc 2011).

         Cope alleges standing as a taxpayer of the state of Missouri. Taxpayers have a legally protectable interest in the proper use and expenditure of tax dollars. See, e.g., Lebeau, 422 S.W.3d at 288-89; E. Mo. Laborers Dist. Council v. St. Louis Cnty., 781 S.W.2d 43, 46 (Mo. banc 1989). The interest "derives from the need to ensure that government officials conform to the law." Lebeau, 422 S.W.3d at 288. Acting as a necessary check on government authority,

[t]axpayer standing gives taxpayers the opportunity to challenge certain actions of government officials that the taxpayer alleges are unauthorized by law, and it permits challenges in areas where no one individual otherwise would be able to allege a violation of the law. … Taxpayers must have some mechanism of enforcing the law.

Id. at 289 (internal quotations omitted).

         To show a legally protectable interest as a taxpayer the plaintiff must be able to demonstrate: "(1) a direct expenditure of funds generated through taxation; (2) an increased levy in taxes; or (3) a pecuniary loss attributable to the challenged transaction of a municipality." Manzara v. State, 343 S.W.3d 656, 659 (Mo. banc 2011); see E. Mo. Laborers Dist., 781 S.W.2d at 47.

         Cope alleges he is a taxpayer and citizen of Wright County, Missouri. He challenges the authority of Governor Parson to appoint Kehoe to the office of Lieutenant Governor, contending such an appointment was outside the scope of the Governor's constitutional and statutory authority to fill vacancies in public offices. He alleges taxpayer standing to challenge Governor Parson's authority to appoint Kehoe as Lieutenant Governor "because such appointment will require the expenditure of revenue collected by taxpayers to fund the Office of the Lieutenant Governor." This is an allegation of a direct expenditure of funds generated through taxation. In 2018, the non-appointment of a Lieutenant Governor would have saved the Missouri taxpayers, at a ...


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