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Government, Politics & Issues

Court of Appeals weighs putting Wellston mayor back in office

The agreement between the St. Louis County Family Court and the Justice Department, almost a year and a half in the making, is aimed at correcting violations in young people's due process and harsher treatment directed at black children.
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It’s now up to the Missouri Court of Appeals to decide if the former mayor of Wellston should get her job back.

A three-judge panel of the court heard arguments Tuesday on whether a St. Louis County judge was correct when he threw Linda Whitfield out of office in May 2014.

Whitfield was impeached in March 2014, less than a week after the Wellston City Council passed a law preventing any impeached politician from serving again in the same office, and just 16 days before the April 2014 election.  

Whitfield, who was already on the ballot, won a second term in office, despite having been impeached. The third-place candidate in that race, Sam Shannon, sued to have her re-election declared invalid, which St. Louis County judge Richard Bresnahan did in late May of that year.

Whitfield was in the courtroom at the Old Post Office for oral arguments on Tuesday, which centered on three main areas: 

  • Did the law apply to her?

Whitfield's attorney, Donnell Smith, said the law barring Whitfield from seeking re-election was unconstitutionally retroactive.

His client had already qualified for the ballot under the terms in place in January 2014, Smith said.

"There's no right for her to hold the office, but you have the right to be found qualified to run for the office," Smith said. "The time for people to challenge her qualifications had already passed."

Jalesia McQueen, an attorney for Wellston, disagreed. A person's expectation that the law won't change does not create a right that can be protected by the courts.

Though Judge Lawrence Mooney seemed to disagree with Smith's arguments that the law was retroactive, he asked McQueen about the period available to challenge candidate qualifications.

"Do you have to challenge if someone is qualified in that time period or is it just one option?" he asked. McQueen said she did not know the answer.

  • Did Wellston have a right to pass the law?

Smith, Whitfield's attorney, also argued that the state law setting the qualifications for mayors in third-class cities meant Wellston had no authority to set its own standards. McQueen disagreed, saying the state sets minimum standards, but doesn't prevent Wellston from adding additional requirements.

  • Did Sam Shannon have other ways to remove Whitfield from office?

When they filed their case, mayoral candidate Sam Shannon and the city of Wellston asked Bresnahan for an injunction, or an order forcing Whitfield from office. That's generally considered a last resort when no other options are available.
In this case, Smith said, there were. Shannon could have sought a writ quo warranto, or an official challenge to Whitfield's right to hold office from Attorney General Chris Koster or St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch. Therefore, Whitfield's opponents improperly sought an injunction.

The ability to get a writ quo warranto does not mean that someone is required to do that before using other options, argued McQueen. It's not up to Shannon and Wellston to issue such a writ, and therefore, no other options were actually available to them.

The three judge panel -- Mooney, Lisa Van Amburg and Clifford Ahrens -- will issue a ruling at a later date. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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