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Mo. judge blocks firing of 3 workers' comp judges
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri judge on Wednesday blocked the firing of three administrative law judges who decide workers' compensation case, saying the state could not eliminate their jobs as part of budget cuts.
Cole County Judge Jon Beetem also barred the state from retaliating against the judges and ordered the state to pay nearly $40,000 in legal fees for the judges. The permanent injunction followed a temporary order Beetem had issued in July preventing the state from eliminating the judges' positions.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's administration has said the judges were dismissed because of budget cuts approved by the legislature. The state labor department intended to eliminate the judges' position June 30, which was the last day of the 2009 budget year.
John Comerford, an attorney who represented the administrative law judges -- Henry Herschel, Matthew Murphy, who works in Cape Girardeau, and John Tackes -- said the court order is a complete victory. Comerford said the case makes clear that workers' compensation judge cannot be removed by cutting the state budget.
"It's a fair result, and we think that the statute that protects these judges is clear," Comerford said.
The state labor department intended to cut five administrative law judge positions. One judge is retiring and another did not sue. The three plaintiffs were appointed former Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, and Herschel was Blunt's general counsel.
In his ruling, Beetem wrote that administrative law judges can be removed only after their terms have expired or by the governor after at least two votes of "no confidence" by a review committee. Beetem concluded that "the termination of one's appointment as an administrative law judge, prior to the expiration of his term and without reliance upon the statutory process, violates one's right to procedural due process."
A state labor department spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the decision and was unsure how it will balance its budget while keeping the judges on the payroll.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, which defended the judges' layoffs in court, had no immediate comment. During a hearing this summer, the office's general counsel contended that the law allowing administrative judges to be removed by an evaluation panel does not prohibit their removal for other reasons, such as budget cuts.
He said the 2005 law was intended to make it easier to remove the judges from their jobs.
Case is Henry Herschel vs. Jeremiah Nixon, 09AC-CC00325
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