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Opponents of Mo judge-selection plan prepare for Senate fight

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2009 - Better Courts for Missouri, a group headed by James Harris -- a former top aide to former Gov. Matt Blunt -- says it has hired lawyers as part of its continued battle against the Missouri Supreme Court and the Missouri Bar.

Tuesday afternoon, Better Courts took after the Bar after the latter's news conference at its Jefferson City headquarters, where Bar allies decried the state House's approval of House Joint Resolution 10 -- one of two proposed constitutional amendments (the other is Senate Joint Resolution 9) that would ask Missouri voters to give the governor and the state Senate more power over judicial nominees and the selection process.

The Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday morning on HJR 10.

If passed by both chambers, the measure would go directly onto the ballot in 2010, and bypass Gov. Jay Nixon, a lawyer who backs the current selection system.

Critics contend the current setup -- officially known as the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan -- gives too much clout to the Missouri Bar and has put too many Democrats on the bench. The Bar and its allies (including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican) disagree, and point to the number of states that have patterned similar systems after Missouri.

The release sent out Tuesday by Harris' group laid out its chief assertion about too many Democratic-leaning judges:

"Contrary to what the Missouri Bar Association claims, at a recent Missouri Law Review symposium, Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Brian Fitzpatrick released research showing that judges picked by nonpartisan selection commissions overwhelmingly leaned Democrat.

"He found that in Missouri roughly half of appellate nominees made political contributions ... (of those) 88 percent donated to Democrats while only 12 percent went to Republicans."

Presumably, the Better Courts group believes that the constitutional amendment would lead to more GOP-leaning judges -- as long as the state Senate, which would be granted veto power by the proposed changes, remains in Republican hands. 

Harris' group reflects, in part, the complaints of Blunt, a Republican, that he was hamstrung in his efforts to appoint like-minded judges. 

During his tenure with Blunt, Harris oversaw many of the governor's non-judicial appointments. Harris was a favorite target of Democrats, who accused him of being too political. Harris particularly came under fire for his handling of the awarding of contracts for fee offices that handle licenses for drivers and vehicles. (Harris' grandmother got one of them.)

Meanwhile, the Better Courts group has hired lawyers, Harris said, to handle the next phase of its fight with the Missouri Supreme Court. A few days ago, the high court turned down the group's open-records request aimed at unearthing Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith's communications pertaining to two legislative measures that could alter the state's judicial-selection system.

Also sought: all such communications from Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff and from the high court's clerk, Thomas F. Simon.

Better Courts for Missouri fired off its initial request on April 1 under the state's Sunshine Law.

Among other things, that request sought:

"all e-mails, letters or memorandums concerning or relating to House Joint Resolution 10 and Senate Joint Resolution 9 sent from Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith or anyone in her direct employ or over whom she exercises employment control to:

a) any Missouri judge

b) any staff-member, intern or other person employed by the judicial branch...

c) any directors, assistant directors, executives, staff members or members of the Board of Governors of the Missouri Bar

d) any directors, assistant directors, executives, staff members or members of the Board of Governors of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys...

The request then lists a number of individuals, including "any member of the Missouri Legislature'' and former state Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson (a Republican appointee who backs the current selection system).

Almost identical open-records requests are made of Wolff and Simon.

Harris contends that the requests should have been granted because his group avoided asking for any records involving "any case before the court."

After being turned down, Harris' group's latest request -- filed Friday -- seeks the court's record-retention policy, and, among other things, "any and all emails or correspondence among any Supreme Court employees from January 1, 2009 through the date of this request relating court employees' personal or private use of public resources by Supreme Court staff or employees."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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