Legal aide

Friday, January 14, 2011

You know how it is when you face a day of legal uncertainty.

Remember Anita Bryant? And don't we all feel nutritionally superior when we slurp down a glass of OJ every morning?

That's the way it is with knowing the right thing to do when matters of law cloud our horizon.

Local elected officials have been confronting some of those clouds this week.

County commissioners are considering a resolution asking the Missouri Legislature to change a law that requires court proceedings to be held both in Jackson, the county seat, and in Cape Girardeau. Commissioners wonder if it would be more cost effective to consolidate all the county operations in Jackson.

These deliberations come amid thoughts of acquiring the old federal building in downtown Cape Girardeau for county operations. Renovating that building would require a sizable outlay. And the county also is budgeting this year for renovations to the administrative building in Jackson.

So if all this money is going to be spent, the commissioners wonder if it would be best to plug those dollars into a brand-new courthouse. In Jackson.

In Cape Girardeau, council members and the hired help at city hall are wondering how to get a proposed smoking ban on the ballot, which a majority of the council opposes, even though a petition has enough signatures to force a vote. The city charter apparently isn't clear enough for everyone to understand. Government documents rarely are plain in their meaning. We all know that.

It's at times like these that I like to turn to my own legal adviser, the likable lawyer, raconteur and author of mystery fairy tales, Moral Swinger.

What I like most about Swinger is his unwavering devotion to truth, justice and the American way -- Cape Girardeau style.

He begins every discussion of matters jurisprudential with a simple question: "Which way do you want it to go?"

See, that's a lawyer who knows not only which side his bread is buttered on, but also knows which majority will be doing the buttering. No wishy-washy legal pros and cons. Just plain practicality, legalwise.

So I tell my friend and counselor that a new courthouse might be the best bargain and voters in Cape Girardeau should have an opportunity to decide the smoking issue. And Swinger responds: I'll have a bulletproof legal opinion ready by midafternoon.

That's my kind of legal representation.

But, I tell Swinger, I'm not sure a new courthouse in uptown Jackson (where did its downtown go?) is the best location. Would a courthouse more accessible to everyone in the county be better? And doesn't a confusing city charter that can't be readily consulted for something as important as a popular vote also raise questions about every other function of city government?

"That one is easy," says Swinger. "The council voted on the wrong question. It should have voted on whether or not to impose a smoking ban, not whether or not to put the issue on the ballot. That happens automatically as a result of the successful petition drive, provided the council doesn't act first to impose a smoking ban."

The courthouse issue -- and the necessity of holding court at some convenient location in Cape Girardeau, where a third of the county lives -- is a bit trickier, Swinger confesses.

"The main courthouse in Jackson County is in downtown Kansas City," Swinger observes, "while Independence, the county seat, has a courthouse that is pretty much a monument to Harry Truman."

I'm not sure I follow what my legal wizard is trying to say.

Swinger mutters, "Muddy waters are the lifeblood of a prosperous legal system."

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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