Jean Peters Baker’s decision to nudge Jackson County Legislator James Tindall out the door is another good example of the power that prosecutors hold in our justice system.
We’ve known for years that Tindall is a convicted felon, a status that means he can’t be a candidate under Missouri law. That hasn’t stopped him from appearing on past ballots, though, and didn’t stop voters from electing him twice after the conviction.
For reasons that remain murky, past prosecutors and political opponents never tried to legally bar Tindall from the ballot. For reasons that are equally murky now, the county prosecutor wanted not only to get him off the next ballot but to remove him from office immediately, presumably on the grounds that he has been illegally holding it.
Tindall resigned rather than face a long, expensive court battle over her decision.
Some have argued that Peters Baker had “no choice” but to seek Tindall’s removal after his opponent filed a lawsuit against him. But prosecutors always have a choice — her predecessors had the same prosecutorial authority she does, and the same facts, yet they chose not to seek Tindall’s ouster.
Peters Baker’s vote, it turns out, is the most important of all.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume she’s right: Tindall should never have been on a ballot after 1999, when he was convicted of tax fraud. That suggests that all the votes he has cast since 2006 were illegitimate, defrauding his constituents of honest representation on the County Legislature.
This doesn’t seem right. Yet the system that allows unqualified candidates to reach the ballot remains intact.
Why must an opponent go to court if he or she thinks a candidate isn’t legally qualified? Shouldn’t some official body examine basic requirements — age, residence, prior convictions, current tax payments — before a ballot is printed?
Today the answer is no. No one has the responsibility for making sure candidates meet any legal requirements to serve.
This is an issue beyond James Tindall. Routinely, Kansas City Council candidates are challenged on residency grounds. The qualifications of some municipal judges have been questioned as well.
It may be tougher to cast a ballot than to be on one.
This seems relatively easy to cure. Some official body — an ethics commissioner, perhaps — should be required to examine qualifications for office after a candidate signs up. A candidate could challenge that finding in court.
Voters should be able to trust that the names on any ballot are legally there. Today that isn’t the case.