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All local judges disqualify selves from J.T. Roberts' sheriff recount case

PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Dec. 6, 2008) — Circuit Judge Tracy Storie and all other judges in Pulaski, Texas, Phelps and Maries counties have disqualified themselves from hearing a court case brought by former Pulaski County Sheriff J.T. Roberts seeking a new election.

Roberts filed court papers Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 3, asking not only for a recount of the Nov. 4 election that he lost to incumbent Sheriff J.B. King by only 38 votes but also for a new election. Roberts accused County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer of numerous election improprieties and said a new election with a hand count of the ballots under strict court supervision is the only fair way to solve the problem.

Storie said he can’t fairly evaluate the claims in Roberts’ request for a new election because he personally knows both candidates. Roberts served 12 years as sheriff until 2004 and before that served two decades as a member of the Missouri State Highway Patrol assigned to Pulaski County; King served three decades as a state trooper assigned to Pulaski County before retiring a few years prior to his 2004 election as sheriff.

“If it were a recount, that I could oversee, but when they start to exercise discretion such as a revote, every judge in the circuit has disqualified and the Supreme Court will appoint someone from outside the circuit unassociated with the election or the election officials or either candidate, and that judge will make the decision,” Storie said.

Storie, a Laquey native who has spent 34 years as a judge in Pulaski County, said he disqualified himself as soon as he heard the case had been assigned to him. Presiding Judge Mary Sheffield of the 25th Judicial Circuit made the same decision soon after, and so did the two associate circuit judges in Pulaski County. While the other counties of the circuit have four additional associate circuit judges — two in Phelps County and one each in Texas and Maries counties — changes of venue between counties for trials are frequent and Storie said it’s likely none of the eight judges would have been able to avoid at least an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Recounts are rare but not unheard of, Storie said.

“We’ve had several recounts in the past, yes, and to be honest, I’ve only known one of them to be turned around, and that was a school board election out of Phelps County,” Storie said. “To my knowledge there is no precedent here for a revote.”

That election was decided by a margin of only one vote, Storie said. The losing candidate sought a recount after having been declared the loser by only one vote, and a recount showed she had actually one more vote than her opponent.

Roberts hasn’t returned a call requesting comment on his request for a new election.

King said he wasn’t surprised when Roberts asked for a recount — he’s automatically entitled to a recount under state law for any election won by a margin of 1 percent or less, and this election qualified because King was declared the winner by only 38 votes out of 12,884 cast, with a margin of 6,403 to 6,441.

However, the request for an entirely new election wasn’t expected, King said.

“This is totally foreign to me; I have absolutely no clue what’s coming,” King said. “We’re in uncharted water here. I do not know what the ramifications of the lawsuit are and what the procedures are for this particular one. This is a civil action of a type I’ve never seen before so I think I’m going to learn a little bit.”

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