COLUMBIA, Mo 9/29/14 (Op Ed) -- What if Michelle Obama were a Supreme Court Justice? What if Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid's wife was the city manager?
What if the wife of a State Representative from Columbia turned Boone County Circuit Court Judge turned State Representative (again) were a Federal Judge overseeing lawsuits against her husband's political district: Boone County and the City of Columbia?
How would it look, a power couple exercising power in two distinct branches of government?
To some Columbia residents, Federal Judge Nanette Laughrey's increasingly-visible role as arbiter of cases against the communities husband -- and retiring State Representative -- Chris Kelly has represented for decades looks bad.
The Rodgers/Franklin gun seizure case. The Ryan Ferguson civil rights lawsuit. The Opus civil rights lawsuit.
All have ended up in Judge Laughrey's court, which -- on its face at least -- appears another edge, however slight, local governments with deep pockets have in court.
"The most recent financial disclosure statement Judicial Watch has on Judge Laughrey documents investments in a stock fund branded/managed by the Nat'l Association of City Managers," reader Dave Lineberry emailed the Heart Beat about Laughrey's hearing of the Opus student apartments case, which names Columbia city manager Mike Matthes as a defendant. "The same report indicates spousal income for her husband, Chris Kelly, from his State Representative pensions and salary. I presume it would be in Mr. Kelly's re-election campaign contribution interests to promote construction growth in Columbia."
Appointed to the Federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Laughrey spent her earlier years deciding dozens of drug, financial, and tax crimes, mostly against individuals.
She sent two men to prison for an investment scam in 2009. She sentenced a former loan officer who scammed his bank in 2008. She overturned a murder conviction and found Truman VA hospital officials guilty of negligence in 1998.
More recently, however, Judge Laughrey has become a major force -- if not the major force -- in litigation against Columbia and Boone County -- in political terms, Chris Kelly country. The scope of Judge Laughrey's CoMo-area oversight is clear from the headlines.
Federal judge tosses Boone County gun lawsuits; attorney files appeals
City dismissed from Ryan Ferguson suit
Crane out as defendant in Ferguson civil rights suit, but county still in
Judge dismisses lawsuit over SWAT raid
Judge rules against Opus opponents, suit against city of Columbia remains
The headlines also suggest Laughrey's Kelly connection has raised concerns before.
Attorneys in Mamtek case seek removal of judge married to state rep
Rep. Kelly participated in "legislative investigations" of the Mamtek/Moberly bond collapse, which prompted attorneys for bond underwriter Morgan-Keegan to complain.
"Given the circumstances here, an outside observer could reasonably question the Judge's impartiality," attorney Chuck Hatfield wrote in the petition for Laughrey to recuse herself, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.
Judge Laughrey declined to recuse herself from the case.
In Laughrey's rulings on the Columbia/Boone County government cases before her, there's nothing to suggest she's anything but impartial. She comes across as a no-BS adjudicator with a keen knowledge of the law who is not afraid to strike down a questionable motion or rule in favor of a precision interpretation.
The problem, then, isn't so much reality as appearances. And because Judge Laughrey is married to one of the state's most astute and long-serving politicians, appearances matter more than they would if her husband didn't loom so large.
"His wife is the esteemed U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey," Tribune columnist Hank Waters writes, in one of many Kelly retrospectives. "He will leave courtroom duties to her."
Surely he will. But that doesn't mean Kelly won't peak his head into her courtroom, if only in over-active imaginings.
“The attorneys for [Columbia] police chief Ken Burton and city manager Mike Matthes wanted Zim Schwartze’s case moved to Federal court in anticipation that the case will be assigned to Judge Nanette Laughrey, former Columbia municipal judge," a Trib Talker commented in April, about a lawsuit the former Columbia police officer filed against the city. "Judge Laughrey will dismiss any case where the defendants are either the city of Columbia or Boone County. Poor Zim Schwartze — her case is lost before she can get a trial by her peers."
-- Mike Martin
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