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Roland v. St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

December 24, 2019

DAVID ROLAND, Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
v.
ST. LOUIS CITY BOARD OF ELECTION COMMISSIONERS, JERRY HUNTER, PAUL MALONEY, BENJAMIN PHILLIPS, JOSEPH BARBAGLIA, MARILYN JOBE, LEO G. STOFF, AND MARY WHEELER-JONES, Appellants/Cross-Respondents.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis The Honorable Jason Sengheiser, Judge.

          LAURA DENVIR STITH, JUDGE.

         The St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners and its members and officers (collectively, the election board) appeal the circuit court's judgment that they violated the sunshine law, section 610.010, et seq., [1] in refusing to produce absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes to David Roland. Mr. Roland cross-appeals the circuit court's taxation of costs against him in regard to the election board's defense of his assertion that the election board's violation was purposeful or knowing.

         The portion of the circuit court's judgment holding the election board violated the sunshine law because absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes are open public records is affirmed. The circuit court's taxation of certain court costs against Mr. Roland and in favor of the election board is reversed because the latter was not entitled to costs under either the sunshine law or the general law governing the award of costs.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Roland represented a candidate taking part in the City of St. Louis' August 2016 primary election. As part of that representation, Mr. Roland made a sunshine law request to the custodian of records for the election board for certain election materials relating to elections held in the City from 2012 through 2016. The election board complied with much of Mr. Roland's request, but its in-house attorney informed Mr. Roland he had advised the election board that the sunshine law did not permit it to grant the portion of Mr. Roland's request seeking absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes connected to those elections. When Mr. Roland continued to pursue the matter, the election board sought a legal opinion from the Missouri Secretary of State's Office. Its counsel advised that the ballot applications were confidential pursuant to section 115.289 and the ballot envelopes were confidential pursuant to section 115.493; accordingly, both types of records were closed pursuant to section 610.021(14).

         Mr. Roland sought a declaratory judgment that the election board violated the sunshine law by refusing to produce the absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes. He also alleged the claimed violation was knowing or purposeful, thereby entitling him to damages, which could include attorney fees, costs, and civil penalties, in addition to a declaratory judgment of his entitlement to the documents.[2]

         The circuit court first tried the issue of whether the election board violated the election laws. It ruled in favor of Mr. Roland, declaring the election board had violated the sunshine law by withholding the absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes. Subsequently, the election board released those records to Mr. Roland.[3]

         The circuit court then addressed Mr. Roland's claim of entitlement to attorney fees, costs and a penalty for this violation of the sunshine law. It found the election board's violation had been neither knowing nor purposeful because it had taken reasonable steps by consulting its in-house counsel and attorneys for the Secretary of State's office, and accepting their advice that Mr. Roland's interpretation of the law was incorrect. The clerk taxed the election board's costs to Mr. Roland in defending against the claim its violation was knowing or purposeful.[4]

         On appeal, the election board claims the circuit court erred in finding that it violated the sunshine law because, it argues, the ballot applications and envelopes are confidential pursuant to sections 115.289 and 115.299 and, therefore, are closed records under section 610.021(14). Mr. Roland cross-appeals the clerk's billing of costs to him, as he was the prevailing party at trial and the only party to establish a violation of the sunshine law. After an opinion by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, this Court accepted transfer and hears the case as on original appeal. Mo. Const. art. V, § 10; Rule 83.04.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "A judgment in a court-tried case will be affirmed if there is substantial evidence to support it, it is not against the weight of the evidence, and it does not erroneously declare or apply the law." Gateway Foam Insulators, Inc. v. Jokerst Paving & Contracting, Inc., 279 S.W.3d 179, 184 (Mo. banc 2009). "An issue of statutory interpretation is a question of law, not fact." Laut v. City of Arnold, 491 S.W.3d 191, 196 (Mo. banc 2016). Accordingly, the meaning and application of sections 115.289 and 115.299 and their interpretation in pari materia with section 610.021 is a question of law for this Court. "It is a basic rule of statutory construction that words should be given their plain and ordinary meaning whenever possible." Spradlin v. City of Fulton, 982 S.W.2d 255, 258 (Mo. banc 1998). "Courts look elsewhere for interpretation only when the meaning is ambiguous or would lead to an illogical result defeating the purpose of the legislature." Id. "The ultimate guide in construing an ambiguous statute is the intent of the legislature." Id.

         Legislative intent with respect to public records is clear. The sunshine law expressly states, "It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law." § 610.011.1. A public record is defined as "any record, whether written or electronically stored, retained by or of any public governmental body …." § 610.010(6). To promote the policy of open public records, the sunshine law states its open records provisions "shall be liberally construed" and "exceptions strictly construed." § 610.011.1.

         III. ST. LOUIS ABSENTEE BALLOT APPLICATIONS HAVE CEASED BEING PROTECTED FROM DISCLOSURE BY LAW

         The sunshine law protects the public's right of access to public records except, as relevant here, "[r]ecords which are protected from disclosure by law." § 610.021(14). Both parties agree the absentee ballot applications Mr. Roland sought are public records and, therefore, are subject to disclosure unless otherwise protected by law. Section 115.289.1, which applies in most Missouri counties, does not otherwise protect ballot applications from disclosure. Section 115.289.2 does provide some restrictions as to whom may obtain lists of those filing absentee ballot applications, stating in relevant part:

[A]ll lists of applications for absentee ballots shall be kept confidential to the extent that such lists of applications shall not be posted or displayed in any area open to the general public, nor shall such lists of applications be shown to any person who is not entitled to see such lists of applications … Persons entitled to see such lists shall include a candidate or a duly authorized representative of a campaign committee as defined in section ...

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