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New evaluation system rates most judges highly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 4, 2008 - A new judicial evaluation system run by the Missouri Bar recommended that voters retain all but one of the 41 judges up for retention in November. The one is St. Louis County Associate Circuit Court Judge Dale W. Hood of Kirkwood. Hood, a former assistant prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, was rated poorly by lawyers for not "demonstrating appropriate demeanor on the bench" and not "weighing all evidence fairly and impartially."

Marie Kenyon, the lawyer who headed the 12-member performance evaluation committee in St. Louis County, said the committee met with Judge Hood to discuss the evaluation. After the meeting the committee stuck with its decision to recommend against retention. Kenyon said there were particular examples of Judge Hood's inappropriate demeanor, but she said the details were confidential as was the final vote of the committee.

Hood was named to the bench by Gov. Matt Blunt in 2005. He holds a military strategy diploma from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and a law degree from St. Louis University School of Law. Hood did not return a call for comment.

The Missouri Bar released Thursday the evaluations of the 41 judges up for retention this November under Missouri's Non-Partisan Court Plan. Tom Burke, president-elect of the Missouri Bar, said he hoped that the new procedures used for evaluating judges would provide citizens with more information on which to base their votes.

The Missouri Bar appointed 12-member judicial performance evaluation committees for each the judicial circuits, half composed of lawyers and half of lay representatives. The committees evaluated each judge based on surveys completed by lawyers and jurors. The committees also looked at opinions submitted by the judges. This was the first time that jurors were surveyed.

Most of the judges scored 4 or better on a scale of 1-5. All of the judges except for Hood scored 3 or better. The local judges who scored mostly in the 3's rather than the 4's were Kurt S. Odenwald of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District; St. Louis County Associate Circuit Judges Mary Bruntrager Schroeder, Gloria Clark-Reno and Sandra Farragut-Hemphill; St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas C. Grady and Associate Circuit Judges Thomas C. Clark, II and Calea Stovall-Reid.

In the past, female and African-American judges often have rated lower than their white male counterparts, causing some critics to suggest that they were disadvantaged by the predominance of white, male lawyers filling out the surveys. Robert Kenney, president of the Mound City Bar Association, said he thought this year's ratings showed that almost all of the judges on the bench were highly qualified.

The new system for evaluating judges was put int effect after the then Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, Michael A. Wolff, called in 2007 for changes that would include improve the evaluations and include lay opinions and jurors' views.

The Non-Partisan Court Plan has been under attack from some conservatives, but the Missouri Bar leaders said the new evaluation system had nothing to do with the criticism. Nevertheless, Burke praised the plan as the "least political way of selecting judges that has been devised," and he added that it had "produced high-caliber, fair-minded judges."

Pamphlets entitled "Judging the Judges" will be available in public places, such as libraries. In response to a question, Burke said the bar may consider providing the information near polling sites.

William H. Freivogel, a regular St. Louis Platform contributor, is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. 

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