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Cole County judge Callahan to hear school suit

January 12, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The former executive director of Missouri's Association of Prosecuting Attorneys will be the first judge to hear the lawsuit against Missouri's school funding system.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan has been assigned to hear the mammoth school funding lawsuit filed late last week. The lawsuit asserts that the state's complicated public school funding formula is neither equitable nor adequate in its distribution of state funds.

Before his election as a circuit judge in 2002, Callahan had been the county's prosecuting attorney while also serving as the top official of the association of county prosecutors.

The school-funding case will not be the first high-profile state case that's landed on Callahan's desk.

Just last week, Callahan had held unconstitutional the method of making available to some potential employers the state's list of persons who had been investigated for child abuse allegations.

Callahan's selection, made by a computer program, may not be final. The program does not take into consideration a judge's current workload, said court clerk Brenda Umstattd, who oversees the process in Cole County.

The Foundation Formula lawsuit, filed by more than 240 school districts, is expected to be a lengthy and expansive process. If a judge feels he or she cannot make that commitment, Umstattd said, the judge can choose to be removed from the case.

Should that occur, Cole County court's presiding judge -- Thomas Brown -- would then make a decision on who would hear the suit.

One possibility would be the judge who handled the last school-funding suit, now-retired Circuit Judge Byron Kinder. As a retired judge, Kinder can be assigned cases, if he agrees.

In 1993, Kinder held the state's school funding system to be unconstitutional -- a decision that led just months later to legislative passage of a tax increase for education and a rewrite of the funding formula.

Attorneys voiced little concern about the decision to place Callahan at the helm of the trial, and said that their focus continues to be on the two critical phases of the case.

"All of this is taking place well before the trial," said Attorney General's Office spokesman Scott Hulste, who likened the process to the novel 'War and Peace.' "We're on the title page. There are several issues that are going to be complex and contentious."

The next phase of the lawsuit is for the defense -- in this case, the Attorney General's office -- to file a response. Then both sides enter the "discovery" phase where they gather and present various forms of evidence, including testimony from experts, numerical data and written documents.

Only after those two events occur can the trial move to the courtroom.

"The individual judges probably are not going to make much of a difference here," said Alex Bartlett, attorney for the school districts. "Judges will be the finders of fact. Personality won't be an issue insofar as this case is concerned."