UPDATE: 3 candidates selected for Mo. Supreme Court vacancy

Thursday, August 21, 2008 | 9:50 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Three judges from western Missouri were picked Thursday as finalists to fill a vacancy on the Missouri Supreme Court.

A special nominating commission gave Gov. Matt Blunt the option of appointing either Atchison County Associate Circuit Judge Zel Fischer or one of two judges on the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District: Lisa White Hardwick or Ronald Holliger.

The seven-member Supreme Court has a vacancy because Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. resigned effective July 31 to accept a federal judgeship.

This will be Blunt's second appointment to the Supreme Court. He has 60 days to appoint one of the three finalists, or else the nominating commission will make the choice.

Holliger, 62, of Blue Springs, also was a finalist when Blunt  instead appointed Western District Appellate Judge Patricia Breckenridge last Septemberto fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed Holliger as a Jackson County circuit judge in 1995 and to the appeals court in 2000.

Hardwick, 47, of Kansas City, became the first black woman to serve on Missouri's Court of Appeals when she was appointed in 2001 by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden to succeed Laura Denvir Stith, who was elevated to the Supreme Court. Hardwick was appointed a circuit judge by Carnahan in 1999 and previously served for seven years on the Jackson County Legislature.

Fischer, 45, of Tarkio, was one of the finalists passed over by Blunt last December when the governor instead appointed Kansas City area attorney Alok Ahuja to replace Breckenridge on the appeals court. Unlike urban judges who are appointed without party labels, Fischer ran as a Republican to win election to the bench.

Blunt pledged Thursday to "carefully review and research the qualifications and experience" of the candidates.

The Republican governor previously has decried "activist" judges, whose rulings he believes go beyond interpreting state laws to essentially imposing laws. He also has expressed displeasure with some candidates recommended by judicial selection panels for other court vacancies.

Earlier this week, Blunt released a 50-question survey he intends to give to the three candidates. The questions range from basic biographic details to their positions on judicial pay, courtroom cameras, Missouri's method of selecting judges and the Supreme Court's authority to manage lower courts. Blunt plans to publicly release their answers.

"I remain committed to protecting our constitution by selecting judges who understand that their role is to say what the law is, not what it should be," Blunt said in a written statement Tuesday.

Under the Missouri Constitution, candidates for appellate and urban trial courts are selected by a seven-member panel consisting of a judge, three attorneys chosen by Missouri Bar members and three people appointed by the governor. Blunt has named just one of those people to the panel; the others were appointments of Holden.

Blunt, some Republican lawmakers and some interest groups have been critical of the secretive nature of the judicial selection commission. Some also have decried the influence of trial attorneys on the nominating panel.

Even before Thursday's announcement of the nominees, the group Better Courts for Missouri already was blasting the selection process. The group advocates for open commission meetings and an expanded slate of five nominees to be submitted to the governor, among other things.

"Even if there were three conservatives (nominated Thursday), it's still a flawed process - a process where you cannot sit in and listen on what questions are being asked," said the group's executive director, James Harris, a former employee in Blunt's office.

The selection commission is exempt from the state's open meetings laws. But under changes announced earlier this year by Stith, who is the high court's chief justice, the time and place of its meetings were publicized. The applications of the three finalists also are to be made public, though those of other candidates still will not.



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