“Stop,” or I’ll Yell “Stop” Again
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
When elected officials intentionally ignore the law, we often react with a mixture of anger and helplessness. Abetted by their government lawyers, whose jobs exist at the pleasure of their only client, elected officials invent arguments to justify going around the plain meaning of ordinary words. It’s enough to make the most moderate of political hearts jump online and order home-delivery of pitchforks in bulk.
We have seen too many examples of this recently in St. Louis. For example, the statutory definition of the earnings tax for the City of St. Louis states that it can be collected “. . . for work done or services performed or rendered in the city.” [emphasis added throughout] Yet city Collector of Revenue Gregory F. X. Daly has interpreted those words during the pandemic to include people working remotely from their homes outside of the city for businesses within the city. Such a determination is preposterous.
You don’t like it? You have the audacity to think people should enforce the laws as written? Tough luck. Sue him. War is Peace.
The legislature has failed in an effort to further tighten the law to clarify that it does not include remote workers. That is unfortunate, as it will embolden Daly and others to engage in more of this, and it should not have been necessary in the first place.
St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page is getting a Ph.D. in this line of governing. He took the position knowing the county charter states that “the county executive’s entire time shall be devoted to the duties of the office.” In the vernacular of 1950, when it was written, that passage clearly meant that the county executive could not have a second job, but Page kept practicing medicine part-time anyway. As admirable a profession as medicine is, the charter did not include an exception for admirable work.
Going from the sublime to the absurd, Dr. Page later attempted to appoint former County Executive Charlie Dooley to the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority. The governing statutes for that board state that nominees “may be appointed by the chief executive of the county with the advice and consent of the county council.” Dooley’s appointment was rejected by the council. (I think he should have been appointed, but that’s another issue.) Page appointed Dooley to the board anyway, with Page’s county counselor justifying it all with legal gymnastics that would have made Simone Biles beam.
You don’t like it? You think the county executive should follow the charter and laws? Tough luck. Sue him (which the council did, in a legislative fashion). Ignorance is Strength.
The county council and county voters have addressed these issues with charter changes, both past and upcoming. But it should not have to come to that.
During his brief time as Governor, Eric Greitens attempted to pay some of his cabinet members more than allowed by state law by quietly funneling the additional salaries through other departments. This was blatantly illegal, but the Greitens administration did it anyway until the legislature caught on and put a stop to it. Until then, it was two plus two equals five.
You think the Governor should follow the law and pay his people within the legal range? Tough luck. Impeach him (which the legislature did, albeit for other, more salacious actions).
President Trump routinely ignored the law to do whatever he wished. Spending money on his ballyhooed border wall without congressional approval and imposing a 25 percent steel tariff without any legal authority are just two examples out of many.
You don’t like it? Tough luck. Impeach him (which they also did, twice). Freedom is slavery.
It’s bad enough when the government lies. It’s worse when elected officials demonstrate how little they think of our democracy and the rule of law by flouting the very laws they are supposed to enforce or enact. The regrettable actions described here are part of a process that is degrading trust in our institutions and our democratic process. As a philosophical libertarian, I appreciate a healthy skepticism of government. Seeing government for what it is instead of taking its benevolent facade at face value is fine by me. But we should all be concerned about the breakdown of the basic regard for the law as it is written. If you don’t like the law, don’t ignore it. Change it by engaging in the hard work of democracy.
But while we are doing that, is it too much to ask that we all agree two plus two equals four?