“Fulltime” Phelps and the Missouri Senate Showdown, Part 2
Wed, 06/02/2021 - 11:40am admin
Lonnie Whitaker, contributing writer
Part 1 focused on the conflict that existed in the Missouri Senate in 1973 stemming from provisions of the Missouri Constitution. On one hand, the Constitution provided that the lieutenant governor was the presiding officer of the senate, but on the other, granted the senate rule-making authority.
On the surface the two provisions may not seem to be problematic, but when politics are involved, matters often become entangled. In 1973, the Democrats controlled the Missouri Senate by a margin of 21 to 13, and with the power to make procedural rules, the senate approved Rule 11, which allowed the president pro tempore (a democrat) to assume the position of presiding officer at will.
So, what’s the big deal? It is the presiding officer in the senate who recognizes a particular senator to bring up a bill for voting, and the Democrats feared a Republican lieutenant governor would recognize a fellow Republican to take up a Republican-favored bill.
And that’s what happened on the last day of the legislative session. Lieutenant Governor Phelps, not following the script the majority floor leader Larry Lee had given him, recognized Springfield Republican, Paul Bradshaw. And when Senator Lee hustled to the podium to correct the situation, Phelps told him to return to his seat.
But Senator Lee did not return to his seat. He made a beeline to the President Pro Tempore William Cason’s desk. After some murmuring between the two senators, Senator Cason strode up the stairs of the dais and stood next to Phelps, and indicated he was “assuming the chair under Senate Rule 11.”
I don’t remember the exact words of the conversation between Phelps and Cason, but the lieutenant governor asserted his constitutional right and refused to give up the podium.
Cason left the podium and headed to the entrance of the chamber where the sergeant at arms, James “Jimmy” Dunnavant, stood. Dunnavant, a Jefferson City police officer, although not tall, according to one Capitol news reporter, was tough. Moreover, he wore a holster with a pistol. Until that day, from my perspective, Jimmy just seemed to be a friendly, easy going fellow. Once, while talking to me about playing the guitar, he told me that country music star Little Jimmy Dickens tried to hire him for his band.
But after Senator Cason whispered in his ear, he marched forward and confronted Lieutenant Governor Phelps behind the podium. In a measured tone, Jimmy advised the lieutenant governor that he had to step down. Phelps refused.
By this time, I had turned around in my chair with my neck craned upwards, gawking at the spectacle taking place. Jimmy secured the lieutenant governor by the arm to “escort” him off the dais, but Phelps stood firm. Jimmy began pushing Phelps and maneuvering him down the steps toward the back door of the senate, with Phelps protesting in a loud voice.
The Springfield Leader Press reported his words as “I object, I object. I am president of the senate and this denies my constitutional right to preside.” The Kansas City Times said, “Dunnavant . . . dragged the lieutenant governor, who was shouting that his constitutional rights and the rights of the people were being denied.” A wire service indicated Phelps had “yelled and stomped his feet.”
A few weeks later in a subsequent Times article, Phelps denied yelling or stomping his feet, and of his ejection, said, “I said in a very firm tone—I did not yell—that I had a constitutional right to the chair. Well, I said that all the way as I was pushed out of the chamber.”
The variation in the reporting reminds me a bit of the “telephone” game where players in a line repeat a message to the person next to them. By the time the message reaches the person at the end of the line, it bears little resemblance to the original message.
From my ringside seat, Jimmy Dunnavant did not drag the lieutenant governor, nor was he “wrestled” out as the Kansas City Times headline indicated. Jimmy pushed him toward the back door in a real-life example of Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, which some WSHS students might recall from teacher Neil Pamperien’s physics class. Namely, that an object stays in place until acted upon by net force. In this instance, it was five-foot-something Jimmy pushing six-foot-plus Phelps, who added friction to the equation by bracing against him.
I almost couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. It was like a bouncer in a bar room tossing a patron who didn’t want to leave at closing time. After Phelps was ejected, an eerie silence ensued in the chamber. No whispering or murmurs. It was as if everybody quit breathing. Senators looked at each other. Reporters at the press table scribbled furiously. Then suddenly, all 13 Republican Senators stood up and marched out of the chamber in protest. And in short order, Cason and/or Lee directed the doorkeepers to lock the doors.
Phelps later tried to reenter the chambers but was prevented. He told the Kansas City Times, “When I approached the dais and attempted to take the chair, I was physically blocked by the sergeant-at-arms.”
The Springfield Leader Press reported: “An angered Senate Minority Leader, A. Clifford Jones, R-Brentwood, told the senators their action was ‘childish’ and urged them to restore Phelps to the chair.” When that didn’t happen, the lieutenant governor sought relief from the Missouri Supreme Court.
At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Lieutenant Governor Phelps, represented by Attorney General John Danforth’s office, filed a petition for a writ of prohibition (a court order) to “prevent Senator Cason, as President Pro Tempore, from interfering with the right of the Lieutenant Governor to preside over sessions of the Senate.”
Unfortunately for the lieutenant governor, the Court denied the petition “. . . because the Court cannot in this limited time give to these issues the consideration warranted for final decision on the merits.” As a result, Senator Cason or his designee presided over the senate until adjournment at midnight.
A final adjudication came on November 30, 1973. In State of Missouri v. Cason, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Constitution’s specific designation of the lieutenant governor as the presiding office of the senate trumped the rule-making authority granted to the senate. The Court recognized the Senate’s right to make rules, but held, “. . . it may not by rule dilute the constitutional authority conferred on the lieutenant governor by Article IV, § 10.”
The 1973 Missouri Senate showdown may have been a prime example of the cliché comparing laws and sausages—it’s better not seeing them made. But 19th century author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau may have described it best. “Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its opposite halves . . . which grind on each other.”