Election 2012
6:16 am
Tue October 23, 2012

Verdict Of Voters To Determine Missouri Judicial Selection Process

In the upcoming election, Missouri voters will decide whether to change how judges are chosen in the Show Me State.

More than 70 years ago Missourians voted for a nominating system that strove to take political influence out of the judiciary.

But as St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman reports, Constitutional Amendment 3 made it to November's ballot after increased criticism of that plan in recent years.

How it all works - now

By now you're probably used to the onslaught of TV campaign ads.

Across the river in Illinois that includes election ads for judges.

You won't find that in Missouri, at least not for the state's Supreme Court, appellate courts and in urban counties including St. Louis and Kansas City.

That's because the Show Me State came up with a unique way of picking judges back in 1940 called the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan.

It works like this:

  • A commission made up of three citizens appointed by the governor and three lawyers elected by Missouri Bar members, plus the chief justice pick three judicial nominees then send them to the governor.
  • The governor picks one of the three.

Yet there's been an ongoing effort to change that system.

Calls for change

Senator Jim Lembke, a Republican from Lemay, introduced legislation to change the plan seven years in a row.

"The changes, though modest, in Amendment 3 will allow the people to hold someone responsible, and that someone is the governor." - Senator Jim Lembke

This year he finally got legislation passed to put the measure on November's ballot.

"I believe the current plan doesn't have proper checks between the branches," Lembke said. "The changes, though modest, in Amendment 3 will allow the people to hold someone responsible, and that someone is the governor."

Currently, Missourians can vote out a judge one year after they're appointed, but Lembke says retention elections are not effective.

Instead, Amendment 3 would allow the governor to appoint four of the members of the commission; a majority.

Lembke says it's an effort to break the Missouri Bar's influence.

But former Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price, Jr. says the real influence in the proposed plan would be money.

"It injects money directly. I believe that's the purpose of it," Price said.

"If you put all the power in the governor it's one-stop shopping." - William Ray Price, Jr.

He says right now power is distributed through several groups, not one person.

"If you put all the power in the governor it's one-stop shopping. Give the governor a lot of money then attempt to influence the governor as to who is nominated and appointed," Price said.

An issue of importance beyond Missouri

The ballot measure is important not just to Missouri, but also in states that have similar judicial selection plans.

Twenty-three states adopted what is now dubbed the "Missouri Plan."

Charlie Hall with the national group Justice At Stake says efforts to change merit selection systems began about five years ago.

This year there also are ballot measures in Arizona and Florida, but Hall says changes in Missouri would have the biggest impact.

"The bottom line is that if any change is registered in Missouri system, this will no longer be a statewide issue, it will be trumpeted by national groups that dislike the Missouri Plan and use it as a way to repudiate it across the country," Hall said.

The local landscape

In Missouri the campaign has been fairly quiet, at least so far.

Judge Price is one of several former Supreme Court judges that are taking part in an opposition group, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts.

They're expected to begin rolling out ads in coming weeks.

St. Louis Public Radio made several attempts to reach the group that supports the ballot but never received an answer.

That group, Better Courts for Missouri did announce last month it would skip campaigning for Amendment 3 after losing two court battles over what it called skewed ballot language.

Meanwhile, Senator Lembke says he'll continue support the measure.

"When I have an opportunity to speak this issue I certainly support the changes that came out of the General Assembly, so I'm certainly campaigning for it," Lembke said.

Asked if he'll introduce legislation again should the ballot measure fail, the senator says he's not sure.

Lembke says he expects the next move would be a push for direct election of judges; something he says he doesn't support.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman

  • See more stories on issues and elections from St. Louis Public Radio, the St. Louis Beacon and Nine Network of Public Media at BeyondNovember.org.