KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) - Missouri's secretary of state lacks legal standing to decide whether a candidate is qualified to run for political office, an appeals court ruled.
Natalie Vowell applied to run for state representative in the 78th District and sought to be on the Democratic ballot in the Aug. 5 primary election.
After an investigation of her voting records showed she had not been a qualified voter for two years prior to the November 2014 election, however, Vowell received a letter from Secretary of State's Office questioning her qualifications. The letter said that the office would not certify her name for the primary ballot, pursuant to Article III, Section 4 of the Missouri Constitution, if Vowell did not submit proof that she was a qualified voter for two years.
Vowell filed suit last month, asking a judge to find that Missouri law did not grant the Secretary of State Jason Kander the authority to evaluate a candidate's qualifications and exclude them from a ballot based on that evaluation.
Cole County Judge Jon Beetem dismissed Vowell's case on May 21, finding that since she lacked standing since she was not a qualified candidate.
Reversing Thursday, however, a three-judge panel of the Western District for the Missouri Appeals Court said Vowell deserves the judgment she sought.
"In short, the plain language of § 115.387 does not reflect that the Legislature intended the secretary of state to judge a candidate's qualifications" Judge Joseph Ellis wrote for the court. "Respondent does not identify any other statutory authority to support his position that he has the power to unilaterally pass judgment on a candidate's qualifications, and we have found none. Accordingly, we hold and declare that respondent is without authority to refuse to certify appellant's name for the primary ballot on the basis of his investigation of and determinations regarding her voter registration history."
The 13-page ruling emphasizes that Vowell's "qualifications for candidacy were not at issue in the underlying declaratory judgment action."
Indeed her "qualifications for candidacy are irrelevant to the question of whether appellant's declaratory judgment action presents a justiciable controversy," Ellis added.
Vowell's standing instead depends on whether she had a legally protectable interest at stake and whether a substantial controversy existed.
"First, official candidacy for public office is most certainly a protectable, legal interest," Ellis wrote. "That is why there are official, statutory procedures for challenging and terminating such candidacy. The petition in this case clearly reflects that appellant had such a protectable interest at stake."
After finding that Vowell's petition clearly her protectable interest in appearing on the primary ballot, the court also said "that her interest was directly and adversely affected by the challenged action, namely respondent's decision to pass judgment upon her qualifications as a candidate."
"Secondly, a substantial controversy exists between appellant and respondent with respect to respondent's authority to evaluate candidates' qualifications," Ellis wrote. "Appellant contends in her petition that § 115.526 provides the exclusive mechanism by which a candidate's qualifications can be adjudicated and that respondent has no statutory authority to assess a candidate's qualifications. Respondent avers that he has the discretionary authority to determine whether individuals satisfy the candidacy requirements pursuant to Article IV, Section 14 of the Missouri Constitution and § 115.378. This disagreement as to respondent's authority is sufficient to establish a substantial controversy exists between the parties in this case."
Chief Judge James Welsh and Judge Karen King Mitchell concurred.