Gov. Eric Greitens is a few weeks away from putting his stamp on the Missouri Supreme Court — sort of.
The Show Me State employs what’s known as the Non-Partisan Court Plan, a process that places constraints a governor’s ability to appoint judges.
When there’s a vacancy on certain courts, as there is right now on the Missouri Supreme Court, a panel of lawyers and non-lawyers interview interested applicants.
That panel, known as the Appellate Judicial Commission, will offer three nominees to Greitens, who then has 60 days to make an appointment. If he doesn’t act, the Appellate Judicial Commission gets to select the next Supreme Court judge.
It’s fair to say Greitens won’t have much direct influence, since he didn’t appoint a single member of the seven-person judicial commission. But with 31 Supreme Court applicants, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone to the Republican governor’s liking could make the final three.
His final pick to replace Richard Teitelman, who died last year, won’t be clear until early March. But a scan of the applicants shows a few broad categories — and notable exceptions when it comes to the diversity of candidates:
Lower court judges
Perhaps the least shocking statistic: 12 of the 31 applicants are judges.
Considering that all of the current members of the Missouri Supreme Court previously served as appeals court, circuit or associate circuit judges, it follows that some lower court judges would jump at the opportunity to move up the judicial ladder.
Most of the applicants are associate circuit or circuit judges, including in small jurisdictions (like Lawrence County Circuit Judge Jack Goodman and Texas County Associate Circuit Judge Doug Gaston) and larger counties (such as Jackson County Circuit Judge W. Brent Powell). At least two interviewees, Gary Lynch and Lisa White Hardwick, are appeals court judges.
Although the commission tends to gravitate toward lower-court judges, that doesn’t stop elected officials from throwing their names in the judicial ring.
Goodman and Gaston both served in the Missouri General Assembly before getting elected or appointed to their respective judgeships.
For this vacancy, applicants include St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who served as an associate circuit and county circuit judge in the early 2000s, and state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.
Both are part of a somewhat recent trend. About a decade ago, then-Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons applied for a Supreme Court vacancy. More recently, term-limited state lawmakers like former St. Louis Democratic Rep. Mike Colona and Sen. Joe Keaveny sought St. Louis-based judgeships.
None of those three pols were appointed, though Keaveny was picked to be an administrative law judge in 2016.
Private practice attorneys
Those who aren’t currently public servants also tend to try for a seat on the bench.
Most of the dozen-plus private-sector applicants work in small or solo law firms. Others, like Stephen O’Brien and Kirk Doan, are part of fairly large law firms. And some had roles in state government before transitioning into more lucrative legal endeavors. (Private practice attorney Erwin Switzer, for instance, worked in the attorney general’s office).
Perhaps the most notable applicant in this division is Ed Martin, who unsuccessfully ran for attorney general and was Gov. Matt Blunt’s chief of staff. Martin has etched a colorful, and controversial, career in Missouri politics – most recently as embattled head of the Eagle Forum.
While all current Missouri Supreme Court justices had prior judicial experience, the commission has included private practice attorneys in a final panel for the last two vacancies.
The vast majority of the 31 applicants are white men. Only two of the interviewees – Hardwick and Sherry Rozell – were women, and Hardwick, an African-American, is the only person of color.
This, too, is something of a trend. Only three women applied for the last vacancy in 2012 on the Missouri Supreme Court and Hardwick was the only person of color to get an interview. The final panel was all white men.
That’s not to say that women and minorities are being completely shut out of Non-Partisan Court Plan vacancies. Three judges on the Missouri Supreme Court (Breckenridge, Mary Russell and Laura Denvir Stith) are women and one judge (George Draper III) is African-American.
Missouri Bar Association President Dana Tippin Cutler said turning the tide won’t be easy. The highest concentration of minorities practicing law is in St. Louis and Kansas City, she said, while rural Missouri doesn't have “a lot of people of color to begin with” and “certainly not enough of lawyers of color or women.”
“So if you have a statewide position like the Missouri Supreme Court and you’re getting applicants from across the state, I think sadly the numbers do represent the numbers of attorneys who would be in a position. I think it’s proportionate, if you will,” said Cutler, who is African-American. “If you’re trying to diversify the entire state, I think you’re an upstream battle you’re not going to win.”
There’s no simple solution to inject more diversity into the applicant pool, though Cutler says the first step is directing more women and minorities toward the legal profession — not exactly an easy or inexpensive educational pathway. “In order to build a trust in the system, you’ve got to see the same mosaic that is our communities in the justice system from the judges all the way down to the clerks,” she said. “And so, that conversation needs to start in grade school.”
The other potential hang-up is persuading people who spent lots of time and money to become attorneys to seek out judgeships. Not everybody wants to do that, especially since it usually comes with a substantial salary reduction.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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