This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. offered up a strong defense today of the state's embattled nonpartisan selection system, while announcing three changes aimed at making the selection process "more transparent to the public."
Price's audience: nearly 900 lawyers and judges attending the joint annual meeting of the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri, held in Columbia.
Price, the most senior Republican-appointed judge on the court, laid out the following changes that have been ordered by the court and apply to the nonpartisan nominating commission:
"1. Open to the public interviews of judicial candidates by the commission as a whole. Price explained, 'The people of Missouri deserve to hear the candidates' statements, and they deserve to hear the questions asked by the commission and the answers given. Now, they will.'
"2. Make public the number of votes received by the three successful nominees who are forwarded for the governor's consideration.
"3. Encourage members of the public to nominate well-qualified judicial candidates."
Price noted that the court previously had ordered that the names of the judicial applicants chosen for interviews be made public.
Said Price in his speech:
"These are significant and meaningful changes. They have not been made lightly. They have been made to strengthen the finest judicial selection plan in the country. They show the court's willingness to listen to the concerns of the people of Missouri. They show the court's willingness to make changes that enhance the integrity of the judicial system and that protect the honor of the rule of law.
"But most importantly, these changes will allow the people of Missouri to see for themselves how our nonpartisan merit selection plan works and why so many of us think it is crucial for justice in Missouri."
He also compared Missouri's system to the alternative, sought by some conservatives, that would require all judges in the state to be elected. Now, only rural judges are elected. Those in urban and suburban areas, and on the appellate and highest court, are chosen by the governor from a panel of three chosen by a selection commission.
Said Price in his address: "It is shocking how much money is finding its way into judicial campaigns. ... It also is shocking that most of this money comes from a small group of big spenders. ... There is no way that this much money from so few people can be good. In fact, a Harris poll released this September found that more than 70 percent of Americans ... believed that campaign contributions have a significant impact on courtroom decisions. Big money in judicial elections is a scandal."
"In Missouri, the nonpartisan merit selection plan has been the cornerstone of preserving the integrity of our urban and appellate courts," he continued. "It has protected our judicial selection process from being taken hostage by the political-financial-consulting triad that dominates the other two branches of government."