As seems to happen every few years, candidates for political office are once again trying to knock their opponents off the ballot – this time for the Democratic Primary for nomination to serve on the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen. In one particular case, incumbent Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley is arguing that his opponent, Herdosia Bentum, should be removed from the ballot either because she has not for the past two years been an “assessed taxpayer of the city” or because (he claims) she is delinquent in paying taxes. Bentum is not delinquent in the payment of any taxes, in part because it is true that she does not own any real or personal property subject to assessment or taxation by the City of St. Louis. But the requirement that a person running to serve on the Board of Aldermen must own taxable real or personal property violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Article I, section 2 of the Missouri Constitution, which is why the Freedom Center is rallying to Ms. Bentum’s assistance.
Ms. Bentum is on very solid ground, constitutionally speaking because courts have addressed this sort of restriction several times. First and most important is Quinn v. Millsap, 491 U.S. 95 (1989), in which a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Missouri Constitution that required a person to own real property before they would be eligible to serve on the St. Louis City Board of Freeholders. The Court made absolutely clear that it should be up to the voters to decide if they care whether a candidate owns private property – and if the voters don’t care, they should not be precluded from electing the representative they think would best serve their interests in office. This case alone requires a ruling in Ms. Bentum’s favor.
But even if Bosley persuades the courts that the issue here is not property ownership, but rather the payment of local taxes, we should still win. As an initial matter, Ms. Bentum has paid the City’s earnings tax ever since she began working in the City. Assuming for the moment that she had not paid this tax, however, the law remains on her side. In Deibler v. City of Rehoboth Beach, 790 F.2d 328 (3rd Cir. 1986), a city had a requirement that a candidate be a non-delinquent taxpayer of the City before they could run for the city commission. The Third Circuit soundly rejected the requirement as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, anticipating that future cases might involve “failure to pay federal or state taxes… sewer assessments, parking fines, dog law violations, jaywalking and other minor infractions” before concluding that “[n]one of these potential qualifications bears on a candidate’s maturity, intelligence, knowledge of the community, ability to recognize and solve community problems.” Yet another case, Hunt v. City of Longview, 932 F.Supp. 828 (E.D. Tex. 1995), focused on the question of whether one could be excluded from public office for failure to pay one’s taxes. The money quote from that case is as follows:
“Keeping current with one’s tax liabilities is not necessarily a mark of good citizenship. Good citizenship can also entail speaking out against unfair or excessive taxes. In this case Plaintiffs dispute that any money is owed to the City. Moreover, the court cannot agree with an argument that those who either fall on hard times or are too poor to pay taxes are bad citizens. The value of the citizenry is not dependent upon the size of its pocketbook.”
The Freedom Center’s decision to represent Ms. Bentum in this case is a logical follow-up to our prior cases of Wright-Jones v. Nasheed, Vowell v. Kander, Constitution Party of Missouri v. St. Louis County, and Peters v. Johns, in which we argued that government should not prevent voters from casting a meaningful vote for the candidates that the voters think would best represent them. If our political system is to work as intended, voters should not face irrational limitations on their ability to choose the candidates they think would do the best job.