JEFFERSON CITY — Chief Justice Laura Stith defended the state’s non-partisan court plan Tuesday in her State of the Judiciary address to the Missouri General Assembly.
The plan, adopted nearly 70 years ago, is designed to remove from partisan politics the selection of judges who sit on the state’s appellate courts and Supreme Court, as well as circuit courts in the metropolitan areas.
“It is a neutral, evenhanded process that blends the best features of merit screening, executive branch appointment and voter participation in judicial selection,” she said.
Under the system, a nominating panel selects three nominees for a judicial vacancy. The governor makes the final selection from among the three candidates. When the term expires, the judge stands for a retention vote without opposition.
In addition to defending the current system, Stith also announced changes designed to give the public more knowledge about the selection process.
“Beginning later this month, the court will require (nominating) commissions to announce the time, date and location of their meetings and to provide demographic information about the applicant pool prior to those meetings,” Stith said.
The commission will also be required to open the applications of the three finalists to the public, she said.
Last year, the former chief of staff for Matt Blunt attacked the secrecy of the process by which nominees are selected for a Supreme Court vacancy for the governor to fill.
Stith said the Supreme Court will hold current judges more accountable by providing voters with more information when judges face retention votes.
“The Supreme Court also is requiring the creation of judicial performance committees to use objective standards to conduct in-depth evaluations of nonpartisan judges seeking retention,” Stith said.
But the legislature’s leading critic of the current system said Stith’s proposals were not enough.
“The information to the individuals on the back end, as it refers to the retention vote, is after the fact,” said Rep. James Lembke, R- St. Louis County. “What we’re trying to address is that a single special interest has all the influence and all the control of the front end of the process.”
Under the current system, lawyers constitute at least two-thirds of the members of a judicial nominating commission.
Lembke has sponsored a constitutional amendment designed to reduce the dominance of lawyers and judges on the nominating commissions, increase the number of nominees submitted to the governor and make the governor’s final selection subject to Senate confirmation.
Lembke, whose bill was heard in a House committee less than three hours before Stith’s address, said judges are simply defending the influence of lawyers in defending the current system.
“There is a real effort of protection going on to the power that they already have,” he said.
The St. Louis County Republican voiced a mild rebuke at the Supreme Court chief justice for including the issue in her State of the Judiciary address.
“It’s certainly telling that you have an independent branch of government that is taking such a vocal position and role when they’re supposed to be really a silent branch,” Lembke said.