JEFFERSON CITY | Three administrative law judges sued Gov. Jay Nixon, his top aide and two senior bureaucrats on Wednesday over plans to fire them at the end of the month.
The judges, who rule on workers' compensation claims within the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, were told last week that they would be laid off on June 30 in a cost-cutting move ahead of the fiscal year that begins July 1.
In the lawsuit, which seeks an injunction against their termination, the judges contend state law only allows them to be fired following negative performance reviews — not for financial or political reasons.
Responding to the lawsuit, Nixon's office emphasized the need to cut expenses in light of the difficult budget outlook.
"During these tough economic times, Missouri government has had to take significant steps to reduce spending, just as many Missouri families have had to do," spokesman Scott Holste said in a statement Wednesday.
The suit includes budget figures that purport to show that laying off the judges is unnecessary to achieve the savings the Nixon administration is seeking.
When asked specifically about the suit's arguments regarding the budget, Holste declined to comment further.
The judges' attorney, John Comerford, raised the possibility that politics could have played a role in the administration's actions. Nixon is a Democrat, and one of the judges to be terminated, Henry Herschel, previously served as Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's general counsel.
"These protections were written into the law because our state's judges must to be able to render independent and impartial decisions without the fear of political reprisals," Comerford said in a statement to The Kansas City Star. "The administration's attempt to terminate these judges directly violates this law."
The four laid-off judges had the least seniority among the 40 currently serving. Of the four, Herschel had been on the job the longest.
"That is a strange coincidence, but it's not enough yet for us to accuse Gov. Nixon of firing judges purely for their political affiliations," Comerford said.
Other judges bringing the suit are Matthew W. Murphy and John A. Tackes. The fourth judge slated to be laid off, June Doughty, did not sue.