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Missouri Bar condemns latest effort to give state Senate role in judicial-selection process

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - The Missouri Bar, made up of the state’s lawyers, is coming out strongly against a legislative effort to get a proposal on this fall’s statewide ballot to change the state’s current judicial selection process to give the state Senate a role in the process.

The proposal, called House Joint Resolution 44, was approved earlier this week by the Missouri House’s Special Standing Committee on Judicial Reform; it has been sent on to be reviewed by another House panel. It would need approval by the full House and Senate before it could end up on the ballot; such measures do not need the approval of the governor.

The backers include House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who said in a brief interview that the proposal is not a dramatic departure from the way the Missouri Plan – also known as the nonpartisan court plan set up 40 years ago – now operates.

The Missouri Bar disagrees.

Under HJR 44, the governor would choose from five nominees, not the current three, chosen by a special commission. The measure also would change the make-up of the commission and require that the state Senate approve its members, which is not now the case.

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court also would be removed from the appellate selection commission, which chooses nominees for the state Supreme Court and the appeals courts. The justice now chairs such panels.

Also removed would be the chief district-court judge, who now chairs the panels that choose nominees for the urban districts where the governor appoints the judges.

The measure also would give the state Senate the power to approve or veto the governor’s choices for the commission members and would require that the commissioners be replaced every four years, with term coinciding with the governor's. The commissioners now serve staggered terms, so no one particular governor names all the members.

The proposal originated with Better Courts for Missouri, a group that has long sought to change how non-elected Missouri judges are selected. (Rural, and some suburban, judges continue to be elected in the state.)

“This is a step in the right direction in the fight to reintroduce transparency and accountability to Missouri’s judicial selection system,” said Better Courts spokesman Rich Chrismer. “ For far too long, the secrecy and lack of accountability under the Missouri Plan has allowed special interest groups like the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys to exercise an undue amount of influence over our courts.

“By allowing Missourians to vote to make changes to the flawed Missouri Plan to reduce the influence exercised by trial attorney interest groups, this bill will enable our state to rid the judicial selection system of special-interest influence,” Chrismer added.

But Missouri Bar president Lynn Whaley Vogel contends that the proposed changes would do just the opposite and “would inject politics and money into Missouri’s currently non-partisan and proven system of selecting appellate judges.”

“HJR44 unleashes politics into a non-partisan process that has been adopted twice by Missouri voters, has been copied by more than 30 states and has a more than 70-year proven record of working for Missourians by providing fair and impartial judges,” she said.

Vogel contended that Senate involvement, for example, “would bring politics and money into the process…. Senate confirmation of commissioners is injecting a level of politics where none is needed. What was a nonpartisan plan would become a thoroughly partisan plan as high-profile appointments are routinely used as political bargaining chips for wholly unrelated issues.”

For example, she said, “This session to date, the most important of the governor’s appointments have either been stalled, withdrawn, rejected or are still pending confirmation” by the state Senate.

Meanwhile, Tilley asserted that legislative pressure has forced the commissions to be more open about their meetings and to make public the applications submitted by candidates for various judgeships.

UPDATE: Better Courts issued a reply later Thursday, that accuse the Bar of "flailing to maintain their disproportionate special-interest power over the process,..."

Among other things, the group contended that the proposed wording in HJR44 will require the Senate to vote within 30 days on the commission nominees. As for curbing the power of the chief Supreme Court judge, the group contends that removing that person from the commission "will help prevent the judge from stacking the court with allies."

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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