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Missouri Bar gives state judges high marks

Thursday, September 4, 2008 | 1:06 p.m. CDT; updated 4:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 4, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri judges got a generally good rating Thursday from review committees appointed by The Missouri Bar.

The lawyers association said that's reason to keep both the judges and the method of selecting them.

Each election, The Missouri Bar makes recommendations on whether voters should retain the appellate and urban judges who were appointed to the bench. Of the 42 judges up for retention elections this year, the group recommended that only one should be voted off the bench.

"The overall quality is good," said Skip Walther, a Columbia attorney who is vice president of The Missouri Bar.

Under Missouri's nonpartisan court plan, judges for the Supreme Court and appeals court are appointed by the governor from a panel of three nominees selected by special committees. Within two years of their appointment, they face retention elections in which voters decide whether they should stay or go. They face additional retention elections every 12 years.

A similar system is used for circuit judges in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. In the rest of the state, circuit judges run for election under political party labels.

Since 1948, The Missouri Bar has done some sort of member survey of whether judges should be retained. In recent years, the group had published their survey results with the percentage - from 0 to 100 - of the attorneys who believed the judges should be kept.

This year, the evaluation process was expanded to include juror surveys and - in the case of appellate judges - samples of their written rulings. Those results then were reviewed by committees of six lawyers and six nonlawyers who made the yes-or-no retention recommendations.

Included in the report is a summary of how lawyers ranked the judges, on a scale of 1 to 5, in several different areas, including fairness and impartiality and explanations of their decisions.

Dale Hood, a St. Louis County Circuit Judge, was the only one recommended to be ousted. His lawyer ratings were less than a 3 in 14 of the 16 categories, faring the worst in his bench demeanor and whether he weighed all evidence fairly and impartially.

Hood did not immediately return a telephone call to his office seeking comment.

The only Supreme Court judge up for a retention election in November is Patricia Breckenridge, who was appointed to the court last year. She received lawyer rankings between 4 and 5 in all categories.

In recent years, Missouri's nonpartisan judicial selection process has been criticized by some Republicans for being too secretive, placing too much power with attorneys and not providing enough conservative nominees to match Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's liking.

The Missouri Bar has staunchly defended the judicial selection process.

"That so many other judges were recommended to be retained probably could be an argument in support of the nonpartisan court plan," Walther said Thursday.

One of the more vocal opposition groups is Better Courts for Missouri, which wants to make public the judicial nominating meetings and expand the slate of candidates submitted to the governor.

The group's executive director, James Harris, said Thursday that it has no qualms with The Missouri Bar review process, but he said it does little to fill the information void that exists about appointed judges for most voters.

Far fewer people cast votes in judicial retention elections than for presidential or gubernatorial candidates, and "I think it proves the process doesn't work that well," Harris said.

 

 


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