State highway near Potosi affected
WASHINGTON — For the second time in four years, the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for the Ku Klux Klan to participate in Missouri’s Adopt-A-Highway Program.
The high court on Monday declined to hear the state’s appeal of a lower court ruling siding with the Klan, meaning that picking up litter along Missouri 21 heading into Potosi can remain the responsibility of the Klan.
In 2001, the court did the same thing in a case relating to another stretch of highway in Missouri, I-55 south of St. Louis — now known as the Rosa Parks Memorial Highway in honor of the civil rights heroine.
“I hope it doesn’t go any further,” said Robert Herman, the St. Louis attorney representing the Klan. “I hope (MODOT) doesn’t keep being stubborn.”
Neither MODOT officials nor the state attorney general’s office returned calls seeking comment.
In the state’s appeal, Missouri attorney Erwin O. Switzer III said state officials wanted to “avoid giving motorists the mistaken impression that the state has anything good to say about a horrific, racist group.”
The state also claimed that allowing the Klan to participate could endanger highway workers mistaken for Klan members and could lead to more littering from people who despise the Klan.
Thomas Robb, executive director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, called the decision a victory for free speech.
“It means the state can’t decide who’s considered legitimate,” Robb said.
The latest case hinged on whether the state could exclude from the Adopt-A-Highway program organizations where “courts have taken judicial notice of a history of violence.”
The state had adopted that regulation after losing the last round to the Klan. Since then, the Klan had changed its focus from I-55 to Missouri 21.
The appeals court called the state’s new regulation “a smokescreen to justify excluding (the Klan) because of its controversial political views.”
The appeals court said the regulation was so broad that teams involved in violent sports, such as football or hockey, could be excluded from the program, as could members of the Mormon Church because in the 1850s, Mormons attacked non-Mormons traveling through Utah.
MODOT’s desire to avoid public backlash “is simply not a legitimate governmental interest that would support the enactment of speech-abridging regulations,” the appeals court said.
Because Herman keeps winning in the yearslong court battle, the state has to pay his fees. It has cost taxpayers about $80,000 in the past four years and about $160,000 since the battle began a decade ago.
“You could fix a lot of potholes for that,” Herman said.
In Potosi, a town of about 3,000 in southeastern Missouri, officials referred questions about the decision to Mayor Wayne Malugen, who could not be reached for comment.
Potosi Chamber of Commerce President Melanie Elliott said she thought the whole affair would reflect badly on Potosi, a town known chiefly for being the site of Missouri’s death row.
Most in Potosi don’t support the Klan, Elliott said. But she fears people might not know that, if signs go up on Missouri 21 trumpeting the Klan as its benefactor.
“I think it does associate us with the Klan,” Elliott said. “You hate that.”
Plus, the town’s lone Klansman can’t seem to keep up with the work anyway, she said.
“That’s the main highway people travel when they come to town,” Elliott said. “You want to have a nice town, and the first thing people will see is all the trash on the road.”
State regulations say adoptees are supposed to clean their sections of road twice every six months. When the group was supposed to be cleaning up I-55 between 1999 and 2001, state officials said they didn’t do it once. Officials said then that if the Klan didn’t do the work, it could be dismissed from the program.
Robb said he thought the local Klansman, identified in court documents as Ralph Griffith, would take good care of the highway now that the case is settled.
But Robb noted that he expects the state to post signs along the highway saying the Klan had adopted it.
“If they don’t put the signs up, the other party isn’t obligated to pick up the trash,” Robb said.
Missouri began its Adopt-A-Highway program in 1987. About 3,400 groups care for about 5,000 miles of Missouri roads, according to the MODOT Web site. The program saves the state about $1.5 million a year, the Web site said.
Such programs are popular nationally; every state but Vermont has one.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court supporting Missouri’s position, the Texas solicitor general warned that states could cancel their Adopt-A-Highway programs if they are forced to allow the Klan to participate.
But Robb said he wouldn’t begin a national push encouraging local Klan members to adopt highways. He said he would, however, lend the national organization’s support to local members who want to join such programs.
And Robb said he hopes his fight with Missouri is done.
“I don’t know what their options are,” Robb said. “There’s no other court they can take it to. For them to ignore the court order because they think it’s too much trouble is a violation of our rights.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jan. 11, 2005
Matt Stearns, Kansas City Star's Washington Correspondent