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Mike Kehoe

Mike Kehoe recites the oath after being announced as the next lieutenant governor during a news conference in the governor's office at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City on Monday, June 18, 2018. (Emil Lippe/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Supreme Court says the state's lieutenant governor can stay lieutenant governor.

In a 10-page decision signed by five members, the court rejected a Democratic-led effort to nullify Gov. Mike Parson’s June appointment of Mike Kehoe as lieutenant governor.

Parson had held the $83,000-per-year position until he was elevated to the top job in state government following the resignation of Eric Greitens last year.

In the lawsuit, the Missouri Democratic Party sought to require that the lieutenant governor position be filled only by an election.

Lead plaintiff Darrell Cope of Hartville, a World War II veteran, said he had standing to sue because one of the lieutenant governor’s duties is to serve as an advocate for veterans.

Parson is poised to give more duties to the position, including moving oversight of the state arts council and public broadcasting programs. The House and Senate must sign off on the proposal.

The court decision clarifies what had become a disagreement among legal experts and lawmakers on whether a Missouri governor has the power to fill the vacancy.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, sided with Parson, while former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff, argued that there was no law authorizing the governor to appoint, nor the voters to elect, a person to serve as lieutenant governor to fill a vacancy in the office.

In other words, once the lieutenant governor post is vacant, it would stay that way until the next election, Wolff said.

But the court said a governor's authority to appoint a lieutenant governor is based on the state constitution, which says, "The governor shall fill all vacancies in public offices unless otherwise provided by law."

In this case, there is no law providing guidance on the  issue, the court noted.

"Missouri’s constitution is clear regarding the authority to make gubernatorial appointments," Parson said in a statement. "It’s important that Missouri have all of the statewide offices filled, which work to provide stability and to ensure that all Missourians are being served appropriately."

"The lieutenant governor is an important office for this state, and I applaud the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision today which confirms the position, as well as the position of previous governors from both parties, that the governor has the authority to appoint a lieutenant governor in the event of a vacancy," he said.

Lauren Gepford, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, said the decision clears up a gray area in state law.

“This question needed to be addressed in the fallout from the explosive and brief tenure of Governor Eric Greitens. Governor Parson has won the power to appoint the state government of his choosing, which he has done by appointing his own Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer. We look forward to holding him accountable for his own performance in office as well as the performance of his appointees," Gepford said.

Judges George Draper and Patricia Breckenridge dissented from the majority.

"While the Legislature may not have provided an alternative method of appointment, there is an alternative available to fill the vacancy — the position merely remains vacant until the next general election," Draper wrote.

Democrats say there are numerous examples of the office being left vacant after its occupant has left or died dating to the 1820s.

In 1960, for example, Lt. Gov. Edward Long was appointed to a seat in the U.S. Senate. His former office stayed vacant until 1961 when Hilary Bush was elected to the position.

Kehoe, of Jefferson City, is a former Senate majority leader.

"I applaud the Missouri Supreme Court's decision today affirming the governor's right to fill this office by appointment, and I look forward to continue to partner with him on economic development and infrastructure," Kehoe said.

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