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Government, Politics & Issues

Critics file suit to challenge ballot summary on proposal to change judicial-selection process

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2012 - A suit has been filed challenging the ballot-summary statement for a November proposal that would change the makeup of the special panels set up to choose nominees for Missouri’s Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.

The ballot summary was worded by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and her staff. The suit, filed Friday in Cole County, alleges that the summary is “insufficient and unfair” in its explanation of the proposal that voters will be asked to approve or reject.

Those filing the suit include James Harris, the executive director of Better Courts for Missouri, a group that has long sought to change Missouri’s nonpartisan judicial-selection system. One proposal would replace the current system with elected judges.

In a statement, Better Courts spokesman Rich Chrismer says that the ballot summary “fails to describe the central purpose of the amendment and includes deceptive language that falsely asserts ‘lawyers’ would be given greater control over the Commission, when in fact the opposite is true.”

As it stands, special seven-person commissions are set up to choose three judicial nominees ; the governor then chooses one of them for the spot.  The commissions are made up of three members of the Missouri Bar, three gubernatorial appointees who are not Bar members, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court would be removed as a voting member of the commission, and the governor would be allowed to choose four members of the commission. The timing of the appointments would be changed so that the governor would choose all during the governor’s four-year term.

The ballot proposal also would remove the requirement that the governor’s appointees not be members of the Bar.

The proposal was approved by the General Assembly last session and goes onto the November ballot. 

Better Courts and the Republican sponsors of the measure object to Carnahan’s ballot summary, announced a couple weeks ago. The summary now states:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to change the current nonpartisan selection of supreme court and court of appeals judges to a process that gives the governor increased authority to:

•  appoint a majority of the commission that selects these court nominees; and

•  appoint all lawyers to the commission by removing the requirement that the governor's appointees be nonlawyers?”

The suit’s objections include the assertion that “the summary inaccurately and unfairly suggests that the proposed constitutional amendment would replace the current nonpartisan court plan with a new ‘process’ for selecting judges for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals…”

“…The ‘nonpartisan’ method of selecting judges will not change, nor will the general process of nominating and appointing judges … ” the suit continues. “Not only does the summary fail to describe the central purpose of the amendment, but it masks the true legal impact of the amendment through the use of inaccurate and argumentative language…”

The suit is the second filed to challenge Carnahan’s wording of a ballot summary. A number of Republican legislative leaders, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, have sued to dispute the summary for a ballot proposal that would bar the governor from setting up a health insurance exchange without approval of the General Assembly or voters.

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