Court Hears Arguments About Who's in Charge When Governor Leaves State
Apr. 17, 1991
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Missouri's governor keeps his powers whether he's unreachable inside a deep Mark Twain-country cave or touting trade in Asia, his lawyers told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But lawyers for the lieutenant governor said the Missouri constitution clearly puts their client in charge when the governor leaves the state.
Missouri's highest court didn't indicate when it would rule on the squabble between Republican Gov. John Ashcroft and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan. A lower court judge has supported the governor's position.
Ashcroft and Carnahan disagree about the constitution's definition of absence. Carnahan argues it means physical absence from the state. He also says Ashcroft shouldn't fear a departure from his policies if Carnahan is temporarily in charge.
Ashcroft, who didn't attend the hearing, contended in an interview Tuesday that Carnahan's interpretation is ''absurd.'' His lawyers told the court a power switch happens only when the governor dies or can't perform his duties.
The judges posed hypothetical scenarios to test the arguments. For example, asked Judge Albert Rendlen, would Ashcroft be in charge if he were lost for several days in the labyrinthian Mark Twain Cave near the town of Hannibal?
Yes, said Deputy Attorney General James Deutsch, the governor still ''calls the shots.''
Deutsch said the case was ''not a matter of gamesmanship, but a matter of statesmanship.''
But Carnahan's lawyer said the governor wouldn't even retain power while his plane circles briefly into Illinois on approach to St. Louis, because he is physically absent from Missouri.
''It is a power question,'' the lieutenant governor's attorney, Alex Bartlett, said during the hour-long hearing. ''Where do you draw the line?'' Circuit Judge Byron Kinder has already ruled in Ashcroft's favor, citing an 1883 state Supreme Court ruling that the then-governor didn't lose his power during a trip to New York to inspect financial documents. To side with Carnahan, the judges would have to overrule the court's previous position.
Ashcroft said Tuesday that fax machines and jet planes allow ''the governor to be available to make decisions virtually any place in the world.''
''The governor has a lot of responsibilities outside the state,'' Ashcroft said. ''And it would be absurd to say as soon as he stepped outside the state to undertake one of those responsibilities, he was no longer governor.''
After the hearing, Carnahan said Ashcroft stopped alerting him about his travels when their legal flap started last year. Before that, he said, he got letters in advance that said when Ashcroft would be out of state.
The lack of notification ''has left the state needlessly exposed in case of emergencies,'' Carnahan said.