- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - In a rare move, the Missouri Supreme Court heard a second round of arguments Tuesday as it wrestles with whether to invalidate a state law that cuts jobless benefits because of an alleged flaw in the way it was enacted.

More than 2,700 people already have lost unemployment benefits this month under the contested Missouri law that limits aid to 13 weeks, the second briefest period nationally along with North Carolina. Florida offers 12 weeks of benefits.

If the state Supreme Court were to strike down the measure, Missouri unemployment benefits would revert to a 20-week limit, which would still be shorter than the national norm of 26 weeks.

The legal battle focuses neither on the merits of the cuts nor their effect on the unemployed, but rather on whether it was OK for the Republican-led Senate to override the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in September four months after the move was approved by the GOP-led House. A lawsuit filed on behalf of unemployed workers contends the Senate needed to vote before the regular legislative session ended in mid-May, because the veto occurred earlier in the session, and not during the September session, which it says is reserved only for bills vetoed during the final week of the regular session or later.

The attorney general’s office, which is defending the law, contends that if at least one bill is vetoed during or after the final week of the regular session, then lawmakers can legally consider all vetoed bills during a September session. That’s what happened last year.

The state Supreme Court initially heard arguments Jan. 13, but subsequently asked attorneys to provide written answers to a series of additional questions honing in on the procedures for handling vetoed bills. The attorney general’s office then asked for a second chance to make oral arguments.

That came Tuesday, when the justices peppered attorneys with technical questions about when vetoed bills are considered “tabled,” whether it matters if they are listed on the Senate debate calendar and whether a constitutional provision describing “like proceedings” means the House and Senate must vote on a veto override during the same session.

Deputy State Solicitor General Jeremiah Morgan said that because “there is no specific, clear, express restriction on the Legislature,” the Senate can legally wait until September to complete a veto override.

One of the plaintiffs, Rudy Chavez, attended the hearing. He applied for unemployment benefits in September, but the 13-week limit kicked in for those making initial benefit claims after Jan. 1. Chavez declined to comment after the hearing, but his attorney, Mike Evans, said there are thousands of other workers who could be affected, even if Chavez is not.

“We’re fighting out there for folks who work hard and due to the global economy have a difficult time competing with foreign countries flooding our markets with cheaper products,” said Evans, whose firm works for the AFL-CIO.

It wasn’t unprecedented for the Supreme Court to hear a second round of arguments. In October 2008, the court initially held arguments on a challenge to the way the Department of Corrections adopted its execution protocol. Because there was a vacancy on the court, an appeals judge sat in. But after Judge Zel Fischer was appointed to the court, a new round of arguments was held in January 2009.


This story has been corrected to show that the 12-week benefit limit is in Florida, not North Carolina.


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