Missouri GOP combs past for Planned Parenthood censure rules

AP News
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Posted: Apr 04, 2016 6:07 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Republicans are looking back more than a century for guidance as they consider whether to hold a regional Planned Parenthood CEO in contempt of the Senate — a rare judgment that could carry jail time.

Senators from both parties have raised questions about how they'd carry out a process that may include testimony before the entire chamber, arrests and sentencing decisions. They've found little direction from recent history; so far, legislative librarians say the last contempt proceeding they've found occurred in 1903.

A Senate panel is to consider proposals Tuesday that would summon Mary Kogut, who heads Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, to explain why she has not complied with a November subpoena demanding documents on how the group handles fetal remains. An attorney plans to appear on the organization's behalf.

Planned Parenthood has disputed the legitimacy of the subpoena, saying it has already complied with an investigation by Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster that found no evidence of illegal tissue sales.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of a committee investigating the organization, filed contempt resolutions against Kogut and Dr. James Miller, owner of the suburban St. Louis Pathology Services Inc. that reviews tissue from Planned Parenthood.

Kogut said in a statement Schaefer issued "a very broad subpoena without specifying how the requested documents relate to a legitimate legislative inquiry." Miller did not respond to a request for comment.

Missouri's constitution says people "guilty of disrespect" toward a Legislative chamber can be fined up to $300 or face 10 days in county jail, or both — but not the steps lawmakers should take before enforcing those penalties.

Todd Scott, an attorney for the Republican Senate caucus, said legislatures have broad authority to punish people for contempt — a right traced back to English common law — but there's "a minimal amount of due process" lawmakers must follow. Schaefer, who also is running for attorney general, said lawmakers have been careful to satisfy those requirements.

Schaefer said it's important to show there are consequences to ignoring a Senate subpoena.

The contempt resolutions would summon Kogut and Miller to appear April 18 and explain why they haven't complied with the subpoenas and why they shouldn't face punishment.

Scott pointed to an 1897 case in which the Jackson County prosecutor, Frank M. Lowe, refused to answer a House committee's questions on whether the Kansas City police chief had offered to cut him in on profits from illegal gambling operations. The House held him in contempt and summoned him. He did not come, and the House voted to issue an arrest warrant.

Lowe challenged his detention, but a Kansas City court of appeals wrote that the Legislature has the power to punish those who ignore its lawful processes. Lowe could not justify ignoring the House's summons, the court wrote, in part because there was no suggestion the investigation was "a mere pretense or instituted 'for political purposes.'"

Abortion-rights advocates have claimed the Senate's investigation is politically motivated. Scott said an investigation's validity is separate from its political context.

"It's easy to make those allegations that this person or that office did something for political purposes," Scott said. "That's really a peripheral question that the public and politicians and the press can debate."

Noting that Planned Parenthood accepts Medicaid dollars, he said, "I can't imagine a scenario where the Legislature could fund something but had no ability to inquire into the use of the funds."

Over the past decades, legislative investigations have typically centered on government agencies, Scott said, so lawmakers had more tools to compel cooperation.

In 1899, the Senate voted to hold a man named Harry Nuttall in contempt for his "conduct, bearing, demeanor and profanity" during a corruption investigation. He pleaded guilty, saying he'd been drunk and had not anticipated testifying.

The House also jailed two men in 1903 for refusing to tell a committee investigating bribery why they were changing a $1,000 bill and two $500 bills into smaller denominations.

In 1972, a senator attempted to subpoena federal meat inspection records from the state agriculture commissioner. But the official refused, and no legislative records indicate the Senate began contempt proceedings.