A Big Win As The Missouri Supreme Court Agrees That When It Comes To Ballot Language, “Words Matter”

A Big Win As The Missouri Supreme Court Agrees That When It Comes To Ballot Language, “Words Matter”

Client News

A WilmerHale team led by Drew Dulberg and Debo Adegbile achieved what newspapers hailed as an “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” victory for Quinton Lucas, Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, a former WilmerHale summer associate, when the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the results of a Missouri election and invalidated a voter-approved amendment to the state’s constitution.

At issue in this case was the language that appeared on Missouri ballots in November 2022 for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state legislature to increase Kansas City’s obligation to fund the Board of Police Commissioners (“the Board”), a state-controlled entity that runs the Kansas City Police Department (“the KCPD”). Although the City reported that the amendment would have a negative fiscal impact in the amount of tens of millions of dollars, statewide ballots claimed that “local governmental entities estimate no additional costs or savings related to the proposal.” WilmerHale argued that the ballot language presented to voters was inaccurate and misleading, resulting in an unfair election. On April 30, 2024, a majority of justices on the Missouri Supreme Court agreed, declaring the constitutional amendment void.

Kansas City, Missouri is the only major city in America that does not control its own police department. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Missouri legislature enacted laws placing the police departments of Missouri’s largest cities with substantial Black populations—Kansas City and St. Louis—under state control. Although St. Louis took back control of its police, for more than 150 years (with the exception of a brief period in the 1930s), the KCPD has remained subject to the control of the state-appointed Board.

Despite not controlling the KCPD, the City is obligated to fund the KCPD subject to a cap set by the state legislature. From 1958 to 2022, the City’s obligation to fund the police was capped at 20% of its general revenue fund. In some years, the City has exercised its discretion to fund the police department at levels beyond the 20% cap. In 2021, the City attempted to exert some control over how those excess funds were spent, by attempting to require the Board to direct the excess funds toward community policing initiatives. The KCPD sued, and state lawmakers accused Mayor Lucas of trying to “defund the police” despite the City’s commitment to fund the KCPD at a level above the statutory minimum.

The state legislature then enacted a pair of laws. The first raised the cap on the City’s obligation to fund the Board from 20% to 25%. But the Missouri Constitution expressly prohibits laws imposing new costs on cities without providing additional state funding to cover the increase. In an attempt to circumvent the state constitution, the legislature passed a second law setting a statewide vote on an amendment to the state constitution to create a carveout solely for laws increasing Kansas City’s funding obligations. The proposed constitutional amendment would only authorize laws that would increase the cap on City’s funding obligations if those laws were enacted during Mayor Lucas’s second term.

Before proposed constitutional amendments appear on statewide ballots, the State Auditor must prepare a fiscal note and a fiscal note summary that inform voters of the expected fiscal consequences associated with the constitutional ballot measures. The fiscal note summary appears on the ballot directly below the summary of the proposed amendment. 

To prepare the fiscal note, the Auditor requests information from state and local entities about expected savings or costs. The City told the Auditor’s office that it expected the amendment to have a negative fiscal impact on the City of more than $38.7 million. In the months leading up to the election, WilmerHale engaged State officials to reiterate the City’s concerns about the ballot language. But the Auditor and the Secretary of State refused to amend the fiscal note summary. Accordingly, the fiscal note summary that appeared on statewide ballots told voters that “State and local governmental entities estimate no additional costs or savings related to this proposal.” In November 2022, voters approved the measure by a substantial margin.

In January 2023, Mayor Lucas, in his individual capacity as a registered voter, filed a petition in the Missouri Supreme Court challenging the ballot language as inaccurate and misleading, and calling for a new election. After denying defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Supreme Court appointed Cole County Circuit Judge S. Cotton Walker to hold an evidentiary hearing and create a record for the Supreme Court’s review on the issues. In a one-day trial in Jefferson City, Missouri, the WilmerHale team and co-counsel from the City Attorney’s office presented evidence from the Mayor, state officials, and a political pollster showing that (1) the Auditor ignored the City’s reasonable accounting of its expected costs; (2) the fiscal note summary that appeared on the ballot was inaccurate and misleading; and (3) the fiscal note summary was so egregious that the integrity of the vote was in doubt.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Mayor Lucas, invalidating the constitutional amendment and ordering a new vote on the proposed amendment. The majority explained that the fiscal note summary “failed in its principal object to concisely and accurately advise voters of the fiscal impact” of the proposed amendment, and “[w]orse … actually misled voters.” It characterized the ballot language as “seriously misleading,” constituting an election irregularity “of the highest conceivable magnitude.” In ruling in favor of Mayor Lucas, the Court echoed a theme the WilmerHale team had focused on throughout the litigation: “words matter.”

 The Kansas City Star called the Supreme Court’s decision “extraordinary,” “unprecedented,” and a “major victory for Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.”

In a public statement, Mayor Quinton Lucas said:

“The Missouri Supreme Court today sided with fairness to the people of Kansas City and all Missouri voters. The voices of Kansas Citians should not be ignored in conversations about our own budget, and Missouri voters should not be, in the words of the Supreme Court, ‘misled’ about the issues before them …

Today’s decision is a win for Kansas City, a win for Missouri voters, and a win for those who believe in honest elections.”

WilmerHale also represents Quinton Lucas in a separate constitutional challenge to the law increasing the cap on the City’s minimum police funding obligations. That case is ongoing. 

These cases are emblematic of ongoing tensions playing out nationwide involving partisan policy battles around policing and accountability. As Mayor Lucas observed, the Supreme Court victory represents “one of the biggest wins in a long time for any local government against a state in our country.”

The WilmerHale team consisted of Drew Dulberg, who led the trial, Debo P. Adegbile, Justin Metz, Britany Riley-Swanbeck, and former WilmerHale colleagues Ivan Panchenko and Clara Spera.


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