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AG candidates differ on court plan, shield law, email inquiry

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 11, 2008- COLUMBIA, Mo. - Chris Koster, the Harrisonville Democrat running for attorney general, said Thursday that he would support the continuation of the Missouri Non-Partisan Court plan as it now operates. His opponent, Republican Mike Gibbons of Kirkwood said he wants some changes in the plan, which has been criticized by some conservatives.

But Gibbons he said he would support the proposed shield law to allow journalists to protect confidential sources in court cases. Koster disagreed, opposing the bill in a room full of journalists at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Missouri University School of Journalism. Koster said that the search for truth in a courtroom is more important than protecting the relationship between a journalist and a source.

On a third issue, Koster said he would push ahead with the investigation that the current attorney general, gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon, has been pressing to obtain emails from Gov. Matt Blunt. Gibbons said he would re-evaluate all investigations underway and would push ahead if the laws and facts justified it. He expressed concern that the email investigation could be too costly.

The two candidates, both of whom have served in the state Senate, exhibited contrasting styles. The youthful, pink-cheeked Koster was more formal, his coat buttoned up throughout the debate. Gibbons, his coat unbuttoned, was more relaxed and colloquial. He joked in his closing statement that "if this race turns into a beauty contest, I might have a serious problem."

Koster emphasized his law enforcement experience in his opening and closing statements, repeating he had carried a badge during 12 of 16 years in office. He said he was the "only candidate in this race who has walked the crime scenes and made the closing arguments in rural courtrooms and urban ones." Koster was the Cass County prosecutor for a decade.

Gibbons, on the other hand, emphasized his experience first as a member of the Kirkwood City Council and later as a member of the Missouri House and Senate. In recent years, he has led the Republicans in the Senate.

Both candidates claimed they would stand up for regular people against special interests. Gibbons said he would not accept political contributions from people the attorney general's office was investigating. He also said that he would not give out no-bid contracts to friendly lawyers when the attorney general's office needed outside legal help. Nixon has occasionally been criticized on that score.

Koster said he had switched from the Republican to Democratic Party because the GOP had moved "too far (in)to the pockets of the powerful and was no longer able to resist the far right." Koster has disagreed with the opposition of many Republican legislators to some kinds of stem-cell research. He characterized himself as "standing up against the party system and standing up for Missouri's working families."

Both Gibbons and Koster said they favored nonpartisan judges. But Gibbons said he wants to change the way appellate commissioners are appointed under the current Missouri plan. He said that outgoing governors exercise power from the "political grave" by appointing commissioners for six-year terms that extend long after the governor's time in office. Gov. Blunt has been unhappy with some of the judges submitted to him and has complained about wanting more influence on judicial selection.

Koster pointed out that the Missouri Plan, as it is known around the country, has been a model followed by many other states interested in limiting politics and maximizing merit in judicial selection. He said he would make no changes. That is in line with the view of the state bar groups and of a bi-partisan collection of lawyers and judges who have come to the defense of the plan.

Both candidates said they would favor extending the no-call law to cover political calls, especially automated calls that many voters find distasteful. Neither candidate addressed the serious First Amendment questions that such an expansion of the law would raise.

The candidates agreed that the Second Injury Fund was likely to go broke if it is not fixed. Koster said he would favor allowing increases in the annual fee paid by firms, while Gibbons would favor moving "permanent partial disability" cases out of the Second Injury Fund.

Gibbons said he would create a cybercrimes unit to address situations like the Megan Meier suicide. Meier is the St. Charles County teenager who killed herself after receiving messages online from people pretending to be a boy friend. Koster said he too would crack down on cybercrimes. Both candidates described the Sunset Hills eminent domain case as an example of how eminent domain could be abused.

William H. Freivogel, a journalist and lawyer, is the director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. 

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