By Kurt Erickson
A state law that capped unemployment benefits for laid off workers at 13 weeks has been found unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court found that the Republican-led Legislature incorrectly approved the change, which slashed the maximum number of weeks of jobless benefits to one of the lowest levels in the nation.
The controversial measure moved through the Republican-led House and Senate in the spring, but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who said the reduction would be "unfair" to people who were out of work.
The House overrode the governor's veto in the spring, but the Senate didn't act on the override until the September veto session.
The court court said the Senate missed its constitutional window to act.
Allowing the veto override to stand "would encourage the Legislature to engage in gamesmanship, delay, and dilatory conduct that would harm the people of Missouri by failing to enact legislation in a timely manner," noted the 13-page majority opinion written by Justice George Draper.
"The people of Missouri are entitled to the efficient, orderly conduct of legislative business during the General Assembly's session," Draper wrote.
Nixon praised the decision and said the Missouri Department of Labor will work to make sure people get their jobless benefits.
"The judges' ruling clarifies the law limiting when the legislature may vote to override a Governor's veto and is good news for thousands of Missourians who were wrongfully denied the unemployment benefits they had earned," Nixon said.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard slammed the decision, saying it "tramples" on the respect for a co-equal form of government.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is just another example of an activist judiciary overstepping its constitutional authority. The Legislature is the voice of the people of Missouri and with today's decision the Court has substituted its own voice for theirs," said Richard, R-Joplin.
The measure enacted one of the nation's toughest limits for receiving unemployment benefits. It would cap benefits at 13 weeks if the statewide unemployment rate remains below 6 percent.
The court's decision means the benefit cap now returns to its previously length of a maximum of 20 weeks, said attorney James Faul of the St. Louis law firm of Hartnett Gladney Hetterman.
"I think this is a big win for working families," Faul said.
Even by restoring the cap to 20 weeks Nixon said Missouri's benefits remain among the lowest in the nation. Only eight other states pay less than the national norm of 26 weeks, while only about one third of Missourians who apply for unemployment insurance benefits actually receive them, Nixon said.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said the court's ruling helps repair a "gaping hole" in the state's social safety net.
"With today's Supreme Court decision, we hope GOP lawmakers have finally learned that claiming to be a constitutional conservative requires one to obey the constitution," Hummel said.
Republicans said the shorter time period, as well as other changes included in the law, would ensure the state's unemployment benefits system is solvent in the future.
Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the ruling was disappointing.
"This common-sense measure was designed to protect Missouri's unemployment insurance system from economic downturns that have repeatedly thrown Missouri's fund into insolvency over the last decade," Mehan said.
Joining Draper in the majority were Justices Laura Stith, Paul Wilson and Richard Teitelman.
In a dissent, Justice Mary Russell said the court should not "trespass" on the proceedings of the legislative branch. Joining Russell in the dissent were Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and Justice Zel Fischer.
(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch