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McClellan: Lincoln County drama pits voters against courthouse crowd

McClellan: Lincoln County drama pits voters against courthouse crowd

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Karla Kerpash grew up on Giles Road near the town of Hawk Point in Lincoln County. Her mother drove a school bus and her father did excavation work and had a dump truck. Although the family was not wealthy, it was an established family, even prominent. The Kerpash family had owned the mill in nearby Moscow Mills.

In 1998, Karla’s father, Kenneth, decided to run in the Democratic primary for presiding commissioner of Lincoln County. He needed some legal advice involving access to voting records and so he contacted a lawyer in St. Louis, who referred him to an associate, Gregory Allsberry.

Kenneth lost the election, but Karla married Allsberry. She eventually became a Republican. Allsberry, who is from Idaho, is that rare duck — a conservative graduate of Washington University law school.

Although they began their married life in St. Louis, they soon moved to Lincoln County where Allsberry established a law practice. The family grew. The oldest of their four children is now a freshman at Truman State University.

In 2014, Allsberry ran for associate circuit court judge. He ran against Patrick Flynn, a Democrat who had served as associate circuit court judge from 1991 to 2002 before going into private practice. Flynn was appointed back to the bench by Gov. Jay Nixon in January 2014 after an associate court judge resigned.

So Flynn ran in the fall of 2014 as an incumbent. He had name recognition. But he was a Democrat, and by then that was a heavy chain to carry in rural Missouri.

Allsberry narrowly won.

In 2018, Flynn made a comeback. This time he ran for circuit court judge — a step up — and this time he ran as a Republican. He cruised to victory.

So did Allsberry, who ran for another term as associate circuit court judge.

The really contested race was for circuit court clerk between the Democratic incumbent Grace Sinclair and Karla Allsberry.

Karla Allsberry? What was she doing running for circuit court clerk?

“I guess I had a secret dream to be circuit court clerk,” she told me when I visited her this past week. She said she had sometimes visited the office on errands and had the feeling that she could run it.

Sinclair had worked in the office since 1991 and had run it for 12 years. She described herself on Facebook as a “pro-union, pro-Life Democrat,” and she said that Allsberry’s husband’s law office building had been rented to Claire McCaskill’s campaign. “Karla and Claire are in this together this November,” she wrote.

But the headwinds are strong against Democrats in Lincoln County. Last year, Donald Trump carried the county with more than 75% of the vote.

Karla Allsberry won her election in 2018 with 51% of the vote.

Several of the veteran clerks resigned in the wake of the election, and Flynn, the new presiding judge, intervened when Karla Allsberry tried to hire replacements. He said he had hiring and firing authority. Then, in May of 2019, amid a series of legal filings, Flynn “indefinitely suspended” Karla Allsberry and appointed her successor, a woman who had worked in the office for years.

Was he justified to do so? Was it even legal?

There was a three-day bench trial about the matter in Cole County in February after which Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan, a former U.S. Attorney under Barack Obama, found that each of Flynn’s 14 stated reasons for ousting Allsberry was invalid, but then declared there was nothing he could do about it because one circuit court judge cannot compel another to do something.

What was the point of a trial then?

With that trial out of the way, the case is being fought on three fronts at the moment — the state court of appeals, the state Supreme Court and federal court.

There are pages and pages of documents, but every judge who looks at this knows what it’s really about — the courthouse crowd. Being in the courthouse crowd is like being in high school. There are cliques, of course, and the A crowd is usually going to consist of lawyers of various sorts, especially the judges. But everybody finds their niche, and everybody is an insider of sorts. And you don’t have to graduate in four years.

But every now and then an election can turn things upside down. The prom queen can get thrown out. The star quarterback can be tossed. This is especially true in rural counties where judges run for office in partisan elections.

The Allsberry case is about the struggle between the courthouse crowd and the voters.

The Attorney General’s office is handling most of the work for Flynn. That makes sense. To a layperson, this seems like a coup, and no ambitious Republican Attorney General wants to be seen as anti-coup. The county is also contracting some work out to St. Louis lawyers. Also, Flynn has appointed a special prosecutor, but to prosecute what?

Meanwhile, who pays the legal bills for the elected clerk?

Karla Allsberry said she didn’t know. She said her bills might be in the neighborhood of $300,000 already.

A couple of weeks ago, Flynn notified court personnel of a “heightened awareness of security” because of rumblings that the elected circuit clerk might be plotting a return.

That prompted my visit. How scary was this woman?

Not very, is what I’d say. A little nervous. “I don’t know how my story ends,” she said.

It is, if nothing else, an odd situation. An election was overturned. It happened almost two years ago. You would think this is a matter the state Supreme Court would want to expedite, but for some reason, the judges don’t seem too bothered.

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