How long should you pay?

Let’s say you’re, oh, 17.

And let’s say you and some buddies are just being teenagers one night.  Nobody has been drinking or doing drugs. You’re just 17 and you’re not really into responsibility yet.

So you’re just hanging out at the mall and you see some guy park his really neat car and go inside.

“I’ll bet that thing can run like a scalded cat,” one of your buddies says.

“Yeah,’ you say. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those.”

One thing leads to another and next thing you know you and your buddies decide to see if the guy locked the doors.  And he didn’t.  Foolish thing not to do.  But he left it unlocked.

“Let’s get in,” somebody says.  So everybody climbs in to smell the new car and test out the seats.  You get into the driver’s seat, test the driving position, imagine how this baby handles.

Next thing you know you and your buddies have started the car and you’re testing the scalded cat theory.

Until the flashing red lights show up in your mirror.

You’re 17, old enough to face criminal charges as an adult. Your lawyer works out a plea bargain because you’re just a stupid kid and you avoid prison.  But you’re on probation for a year after pleading guilty to a low-grade felony, a sobering and maturing experience. Since then you’ve been a responsible adult.  Since then you’ve become a respected member of your community. Thirty years have passed.

Somebody says, “You know, you ought to be on the city council.”  It sounds interesting so you file and you win.   After you’ve been sworn in, somebody comes up to you and says, “Did you know that Missouri has a law saying people with felony convictions can never run for public office?”

You didn’t know.  But you do know you have been a good citizen, that public service is something you really want to do, that representing people who know you and have put their confidence in you is something you feel called to do.

Then somebody filed a lawsuit to throw you out of office.

Say hello to Herschel Young, Cass County Presiding Commissioner, elected last year, three years after the no-felons-allowed law went into effect. Back in 1995, he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony (the next-to-lowest felony in state law) and was put on probation for a year.  What did he do?  He slugged a guy that he says spat on his wife.  Young was about 27 then.

The state law requires a county prosecutor to take action to remove from office a convicted felon if that person is elected because the person is not qualified to hold the office. If you’re not qualified to run, you’re not qualified to serve. A lower court has ordered his removal.  Young has appealed his case to the state supreme court, arguing the law is unconstitutional.

Part of his argument is that the law penalizes him now for something he did before there was such a law.  The other side says the issue is that the law had been in effect for three years before Young decided to seek office.  He shouldn’t have run in the first place..

But what about the rights of voters?  The people of Cass County elected Young.  Would removing him infringe on the rights of voters to choose someone they are confident can be the kind of leader they want? Doesn’t the law restrict the rights of voters in a representative government?

But isn’t the real question this one:  How long should a person have to pay a price for something they did years ago.  This isn’t an irresponsible teenager taking a car for a joyride.  But how many of us men would not react or want to react without thinking if somebody spat on our wives?   Would we give a second thought to whether we were endangering our chances of ever entering elective public service?

Reporters sometimes have to ask themselves a similar question.  Should we report  something a candidate did many years ago when that person was, in effect, a different person?  What value would there be in such a report?

How long do you continue to pay a penalty for the day a different you did something you shouldn’t have done?   Missouri law says the answer is, in effect, “forever” in certain circumstances.

Is that right?  Is that fair for the individual and for citizens who want him or her to serve them?

The reason we have courts is because we have laws like this one and because the laws affect our real lives.

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