JEFFERSON CITY – Just days after proposing changes to Missouri's nonpartisan judicial selection process, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof received vehement opposition from the Missouri Bar Association.
On Tuesday, Hulshof proposed a number of amendments that would correct what he identified as an imbalance in the judicial selection process.
"A plan that was intended to be nonpartisan has become very partisan," Hulshof spokesman Scott Baker said. "Basically, what he is proposing is a way to balance the scales once again and ensure that a small sector of attorneys do not have complete control over the process, as we see today."
In accordance with the 1940 Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, the state's judicial selection process was designed to be a nonpartisan, merit-based procedure by which judges of the Missouri Supreme Court, trial courts in St. Louis and Kansas City and three state appeals courts are selected. The current appellate judge, three citizens chosen by the governor and three attorneys elected by the Missouri Bar, make up the commission that selects three nominees for an open judicial position in those courts. The governor then appoints one of the nominees to that position.
This procedure has been adopted as a working model of a nonpartisan judicial selection process in 30 other states, according to Missouri's judicial branch Web site.
The primary change Hulshof proposes is to replace the commission's three attorneys with two appellate court judges and one trial judge, all of whom would be randomly selected.
Hulshof also proposed increasing the number of final nominees submitted to the governor from three to five, and allowing the governor two opportunities to reject the entire panel of nominees. The governor then would be able to appoint his or her own candidate, to be confirmed by the Senate. Under the current system, if the governor does not appoint any of the three nominees to the position, the commission makes the appointment.
"Open up the process, and remove special interests, and expand the number of nominees, and allow other groups to be part of the process," Baker said.
The Missouri Bar is the most recent, and possibly most significant, opponent to the proposal.
Established four years after the inception of the Nonpartisan Court Plan, the Missouri Bar has been a strong supporter of the plan, said a top Bar official.
"We think the Missouri Court Plan is the best plan for Missouri," Missouri Bar President Tom Burke said. "It attracts high-quality judges in the least political way, and has operated well for nearly 70 years, and has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations."
Both Burke and Missouri Bar Executive Director Keith Birkes denounced Hulshof's claim that the Nonpartisan Court Plan has become partisan.
"There is no basis for that allegation," Birkes said. "Our judges are among the most qualified in the country - highly respected, fair, intelligent, objective - and there is no evidence in any way that they are biased or partisan or prejudiced toward any interest."
Baker, however, implied that the Bar may have partisan influences. While reviewing statements from opponents of Hulshof's proposal, Baker said, "I think one of the quotes that I read is from somebody high up in the Bar Association who was a Jay Nixon supporter."
"That is goofy, at the highest level," Birkes said regarding Baker's statement. "Inaccurate and untrue, and I am embarrassed for them that they would make a suggestion like that."
Hulshof's opponent, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon, also defended the Nonpartisan Court Plan.
"Ultimately, we must protect the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan," Nixon spokesman Oren Shur said. "Congressman Hulshof wants to dismantle the nonpartisan element. What he's talking about is instilling a new process that is extremely partisan. It allows one elected official — the governor — all the power to appoint our judges.
"That might be how things work in Washington, but here in Missouri, we keep politics out," Shur said.
Democratic attorney general candidate Chris Koster, who was the prosecuting attorney of Cass County before becoming a state senator, said he would continue to support the Nonpartisan Court Plan in its current form if Hulshof is elected to the governor's seat in November.
Attorney general candidate Mike G ibbons, who is running on the Republican ticket, said the Nonpartisan Court Plan has its merits, but he’s happy Hulshof has made it an issue.
"I'm glad the congressman has made it a part of this election, and that we'll be talking about it," Gibbons said. "Yes, it needs more attention. Yes, it needs more changes to fulfill its promise to be nonpartisan in the judicial selection process. And I look forward to hearing more about it."