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Government, Politics & Issues
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Schmitt Reflects On First Year As Missouri Attorney General — And Charts Course For 2020

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks with reporters following Gov. Mike Parson's State of the State address.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks with reporters following Gov. Mike Parson's State of the State address.

Eric Schmitt was the first person in his immediate family to go to college — let alone get a law degree. 

So it’s not surprising that Schmitt said he recognizes the civic weight of serving as Missouri’s attorney general.

And roughly a year after Gov. Mike Parson appointed him to that post, the Republican is reflecting on his office’s crime-fighting efforts — and looking to the 2020 legislative session to enact policy initiatives to enhance public safety.

“The idea of being attorney general right now for the state and representing all six million Missourians — the gravity of that is not lost on me,” Schmitt said. “And I’m humbled by it every day.”

In a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Schmitt went over highlights of his roughly year in office. That included partnering with federal prosecutors to target violent crime — especially in urban areas.

Schmitt embedded staffers in the offices of the state’s two U.S. attorneys. He said that’s resulted in about 100 federal indictments, including roughly 70 in the St. Louis metro area.

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“So we wanted to do something where we know we can be helpful. Because typically, we have to be asked by a local prosecutor to come in and assist,” Schmitt said. 

Going into next year’s legislative session, Schmitt wants lawmakers to enhance penalties for carjackers. He also wants to get rid of St. Louis’ residency requirement for police officers.

“There may be a police officer in Jefferson County, in St. Charles County or one of the municipalities in St. Louis County that wants to do police work in the city of St. Louis,” Schmitt said. “I view it as an opportunity to get more people from the overall region invested in the city and becoming police officers in the city of the St. Louis, where there’s a great need.”

Tracking untested rape kits

Another initiative that Schmitt is working on is making sure the state’s backlog of rape kits are tested. He said there are roughly 6,000 kits sitting on shelves throughout the state, and added that his office is in the process of creating a tracking system.

Schmitt said it costs about $1,000 to test each kit. And he said a grant that his office received can test about 1,250 rape kits.

“So there’s more to do. But the way we anticipate those grants are structured, we have to exhaust a major portion of them before we can reapply,” Schmitt said. “We fully intend to reapply for federal grant money.”

Going after opioid companies

Attorney General Eric Schmitt at a press conference on November 19, 2019.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks at a press conference last month.

Schmitt’s predecessor, Josh Hawley, launched the rape kit testing effort, as well as litigation against opioid companies — something that other state attorneys general are pursuing. Schmitt said there are national conversations about settlements — which he added could mean money for the state.

“There’s distributors and retailers that have expressed interest in some sort of global settlement, we’ll see how that goes,” Schmitt said. “But we want to advocate for Missouri. There’s discussion about allocation, right? Population versus utilization. It gets a little complicated. But we’re going to press our case forward. And ultimately, get as many dollars as we can toward treatment.”

Affordable Care Act lawsuit

As Schmitt prepares to run for a full four-year term, at least two Democrats — Richard Finneran and Elad Gross — are campaigning to oust him from office. Finneran in particular has criticized Schmitt for keeping Missouri in a pending lawsuit against the federal Affordable Care Act.

Because Missouri is in that lawsuit, Finneran has argued that Schmitt is placing a host of health care protections — including requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions — at risk. This is a similar argument to the one that Democrat Claire McCaskill made against Hawley during her unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2018.

Schmitt said he’s kept Missouri in the case known as Texas v. Azar because, he contends, the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. 

“That’s my position. That is a widely held position by many people. And we’ll see how that ultimately plays out,” Schmitt said. “But that shouldn’t change the fact that we need to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions are covered. There are a lot of protections that I believe in and would advocate for.

“I think that Congress ought to be working on that right now,” he added. “I think Republicans and Democrats should come together on that issue.”

Sunshine law issues

Missouri House of Representatives members speak on the house floor on the last day of the legislative session.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri House of Representatives members speak on the house floor on the last day of the 2019 legislative session.

Schmitt was also asked to weigh in on whether Gov. Mike Parson could cite the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to justify redacting phone numbers, email addresses and addresses of people who contacted the governor’s office. Schmitt’s office eventually told Parson to stop using that free speech argument to restrict information.

He cited that letter to Parson as the reason his office is not defending the Missouri House in a lawsuit over a rule aimed at shielding some documents from the Sunshine law. The House hired private attorneys instead.

“We took a position with a letter to the governor that I think the best course is for the House to have independent counsel,” Schmitt said.

A recently enacted amendment known as Clean Missouri makes legislative emails open to Sunshine Law requests. But even that measure’s most ardent supporters concede that lawmakers and the governor can enact restrictions through statutory changes on what can be released.

Schmitt, though, declined to provide any ideas on how lawmakers should proceed on any legislative effort to change the Sunshine Law for the legislative branch.

“As a former legislator myself, I want to be respectful of how they’re going to go about the process,” said Schmitt, who spent eight years in the Missouri Senate. “I mean, we have an enforcement role.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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