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Roy Blunt sides with effort to change Missouri's judicial-selection system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2010 - U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, is apparently aligning his U.S. Senate bid with the initiative-petition effort to revamp how Missouri selects its judges in the urban areas and on the higher courts, by requiring that they be elected, not appointed.

And with the initiative-petition's success in doubt, Blunt's campaign is taking aim at the person whose office will decide whether that judicial measure meets the state law's criteria to end up on the Nov. 2 ballot: Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who also happens to be the best-known Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.

Blunt's campaign asserted today that "special-interest trial lawyers have been attempting to influence" Carnahan's decision via $500,000 in campaign donations that he says her campaign has received from lawyers. (According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations, Carnahan has received at least $721,834 from lawyers and law firms, compared to $223,543 for Blunt.)

“Robin Carnahan can make all the false assertions she wants about campaign contributions, but what she can’t deny is that she’s taken more than half a million dollars from special-interest trial lawyers as she prepares to make a crucial decision on an initiative petition they don’t like,” said Blunt spokesperson Rich Chrismer. “Using Carnahan's logic, Missourians have every right to question her judgment and whether she can be trusted to make an independent or impartial decision on this issue after taking $500,000 from the personal injury lawyers who don’t want this petition on the ballot.”

Blunt's accusation is the first salvo of what some already predict will be a barrage of attacks against Carnahan on the subject, in the weeks leading up to her office's official announcement by Aug. 3. The issue? Whether ShowMe Better Courts submitted enough signatures in its quest to ask Missouri voters to eliminate the 60-year-old system in which urban and higher-court judges are appointed by the governor. The governor now chooses from a list of three nominees assembled by a selection commission made up members of the Missouri Bar and gubernatorial appointees.

Critics of that system included Blunt's son, former Gov. Matt Blunt, who contended that the lists generally had only liberal candidates for the judgeships. The head of ShowMe Better Courts is former Blunt aide James Harris.

Under ShowMe's ballot proposal, voters would elect all Missouri judges -- even those on the state Supreme Court. Rural judges in the state already are elected.

One of the groups supporting the current process, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, announced several weeks ago that its analysis of the petitions submitted by ShowMe indicated that the group failed to submit enough valid signatures from registered voters in at least six congressional districts, as state law requires. In fact, the Impartial Courts group and allied operatives say ShowMe's petitions don't even come close to meeting the requirements for putting its proposal on the ballot.

Harris has maintained that the signature-collection firm, which was paid more than $1 million, has assured him that it did turn in enough signatures.

In any case, supporters of the current system have been privately predicting that ShowMe's allies would begin attacking Carnahan and raising questions about her credibility and that of her staff.

But the speculation hadn't included any involvement by the congressman, although his spokesman, Rich Chrismer, previously was the spokesman for the congressman's son, former Gov. Blunt. Carnahan has taken no public stance on the ballot proposal, citing her office's role in determining whether the measure actually goes before voters.

Carnahan's official spokeswoman emphasized today that the secretary of state's office has a limited role in verifying the signatures on the petitions. That job is left up mainly to the local election authorities and county clerks, said secretary of state spokeswoman Laura Egerdal. The chief role of Carnahan's staff, she added, is to add up the verified signatures from the different jurisdictions within each congressional district to see if the mandated minimums are met.

"The signature verification process is very transparent and conducted mainly on a local level. Local election authorities across the state check every signature to ensure it is valid," Egerdal said. "They have until July 27 to verify the signatures. We will then issue a certificate of sufficiency for each petition by Aug. 3."

The attack against Carnahan also comes as her campaign has continued to hammer Blunt over his donations from oil companies, a tactic that appears to have helped Carnahan cut away most of Blunt's earlier lead in independent polls. The latest numbers show the two statistically tied.

Even so, Blunt's attack against Carnahan on the judicial issue could be politically risky, since many prominent Republicans -- some of whom have donated to the congressman, or endorsed him -- are among the lawyers defending the current judicial selection system and opposing ShowMe's effort

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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