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Show Me Better Courts now seeks election of all Missouri judges, including the state Supreme Court

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2009 - The group seeking to overhaul Missouri's system for selecting judges is now floating a second option.

Show Me Better Courts announced today that it has filed a proposed initiative petition to ask Missouri voters to approve direct election of judges. That proposal is in addition to the petition that the group already is circulating, which calls for the governor to appoint the judges, with state Senate approval.

James Harris, executive director of Show Me Better Courts, said in a statement that "instituting direct elections of Missouri’s judges will make Missouri courts more responsive to the needs of the average Missourian while taking the power away from trial lawyers and special interest groups that dominate the current process and often have vested interests in the outcomes of judicial rulings."

Later, in a telephone interview, Harris said his group is seeking a second petition drive, because the first one appears to be tied up court because of suits filed by several lawyers and former lawmakers.

Harris said he was prepared for his second option to face a court challenge as well, but that his hope was that at least one of his plans will successfully get through those roadblocks and -- assuming they collect the necessary signatures of roughly 160,000 registered voters -- get on next year's November ballot.

Harris recognizes that his quest may hinge on the state's judges, many of whom may be not be amenable to his chief aim.

Harris, a former aide to then-Gov. Matt Blunt, is leading the effort to scuttle the 60-year-old nonpartisan Missouri Plan, a system that selects the judges for the state's appeals and Supreme Court, and the judges in urban and suburban counties. Under the system, a panel named by the Missouri Bar and the governor settles on three judicial nominees for any vacancy. The governor chooses one of them. The Legislature has no involvement.

Show Me Better Courts claims that the Missouri Plan is really partisan and favors liberal judges. The Missouri Bar is among those who disagree.

Harris cited a University of Chicago study that he says has concluded that "it is a myth that the Missouri Plan produces more independent courts. They could not find any statistically-significant evidence to back up this widespread assertion – indeed, the data they found suggested the opposite may be true...."

Harris' group already is circulating an initiative petition, approved by the secretary of state, that seeks to ask voters next year to replace the Missouri Plan with a system modeled after the federal system, where the president appoints judges who must then be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

As for the second petition drive, he said, "Direct elections are the primary method of appointing judges in many other states (including Illinois) and at the local level in a majority of counties in Missouri."

If approved by the secretary of state's office, this new petition would be circulated along with the existing one, assuming that both get through the courts, he said.

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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