Speaking with reporters in St. Louis on Thursday, Gov. Jay Nixon said he’s “ready to appoint if the chief justice wants to call a commission together.” That’s a reference to how Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge would have to start the process to replace Richard Teitelman, a Missouri Supreme Court judge who died last month.
“I’d be certainly be willing to do that and I think there’s a lot of good candidates for it,” Nixon said. “I have never in my eight years called a commissioner and asked them to put somebody on a panel. And in this situation, that’s up to the courts. I do think with an opening, you could get it done if there’s enough time to. But that’s their choice, not mine.”
Here’s how choosing Teitelman’s replacement would work: A seven-person panel that includes Breckenridge, three members of the Missouri Bar and three non-lawyers would interview applicants. These seven people, known as the Appellate Judicial Commission, would then send three nominees to Nixon, who would then have a time limit to make a selection.
One of the reasons for the relative uncertainty is filling the past two Supreme Court vacancies have taken several months. And Nixon is leaving office on Jan. 9, meaning it’s possible that Gov.-elect Eric Greitens could pick Teitelman’s successor.
But even if he doesn’t get to make the final decision, Nixon will still have some indirect influence. The Democratic governor appointed all three non-lawyer members of the Appellate Judicial Commission. And he’ll get to appoint non-lawyer member Cheryl Darrough’s replacement when her term expires at the end of this year. (He’ll also get to appoint members of judicial commission that nominate lower court judges.)
“I will make those appointments and they will serve for six years,” he said.
Fight over court plan looming?
Some Republican legislators and activists have criticized the Nonpartisan Court Plan for years, arguing that it makes easier to get judges to the bench that support the plaintiff’s bar.
Nixon said he’s strong advocate for the Court Plan.
“The court plan works,” Nixon said. “There have been some difficult decisions. There have been a lot of folks, for example, that worked for me in the attorney general’s office that made panels that I didn’t appoint. People I know really well – personal friends that I had to not appoint, because I’ve tried to make the hard and right decisions."
(Nixon did appoint several former aides to appellate judgeships, including Appeals Court Judges Ted Ardini and Karen King Mitchell.)
A Greitens aide told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this year that the Republican would like to adopt a plan similar to Tennessee. In that state, governors appoint judges that are then approved by the legislature. Those judges then face periodic retention votes.
But any effort to change the court plan would require a statewide vote. And voters overwhelmingly rejected alterations to that system in 2012. (Although it should be noted that proponents of changes to the court plan did not actively campaign for the constitutional amendment to pass.)
“I think it’s a system that has been working,” Nixon said. “People have confidence in the decisions.”