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E-mails show Blunt's chief of staff opposed court nominee

Saturday, November 15, 2008 | 8:44 p.m. CST; updated 8:54 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 15, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Gov. Matt Blunt's former chief of staff used his state e-mail account to rally conservative legal and activist groups in an unsuccessful attempt to derail his boss' September 2007 appointment of a Missouri Supreme Court judge.

That effort was not unique. E-mails released under the state's open-records law show Blunt's office routinely coordinated with outside — but like-minded — interest groups on a range of issues: from the selection of judges to building political opposition against a Blunt rival to asking outsiders to trumpet government transparency efforts.

The e-mails were contained in more than 60,000 pages of e-mails were released to The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to settle a lawsuit filed by the news outlets over records requested last year under the Sunshine Law.

In one case, the coordination by Blunt's chief of staff Ed Martin — who would later resign — seemingly put him at odds with his boss.

In 2007, Blunt picked appeals court Judge Patricia Breckenridge for the state Supreme Court. The selection angered some, who questioned her conservative credentials. Critics also used her selection to focus on the state's method of selecting appeals court and trial judges in the state's urban areas.

Independent commissions consider applicants and submit three nominees to the governor, who then appoints one. If the governor rejects the candidates, then the commission picks the judge.

Many Republicans say the plan hasn't given Blunt sufficiently conservative nominees. Martin was no fan of the process, either.

E-mails show he and other governor's office staffers encouraged conservative legal and activist groups in an apparent push to get Blunt to reject Breckenridge and the two other Supreme Court nominees. The e-mails also reveal politicization in the selection of judicial nominees for lower appeals court spots.

Private-sector critics of the judicial selection system were asked by Blunt's aides to:

  • Check into the backgrounds of judge candidates.
  • Submit to the governor's office questions to be asked of the finalists.
  • File a lawsuit alleging Sunshine Law violations with offers to use governor's office staff to draft a news release.
  • Offer opinions on their favored candidate for an opening on a lower appeals court.

The governor's office initially denied such e-mails were accessible.

"None of Ed's e-mails on this topic are or were available anywhere,'' Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer told the Springfield News-Leader in September 2007 in response to inquiries about the existence of the e-mails.

But plenty were included in the newly released e-mails.

In a July 2007 e-mail, Martin asked Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the conservative legal group Federalist Society, to send an "unsolicited'' e-mail saying: "go get 'em governor — and we've got your back.''

A day later, Leo sent Martin an e-mail that was addressed to Blunt. It pledged help while urging the rejection of the Missouri Supreme Court nominees if the candidates are "anything less than outstanding.'' Leo, in subsequent e-mails, said that Breckenridge should be framed as "out of the mainstream.''

Later, Martin sent an e-mail in August to Ray Wagner, the husband of the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg with strong ties to the Missouri GOP, complaining about the judicial selection process and accusing the nomination commission of undercutting Don Ross — a Blunt appointee to the commission.

"This panel stinks and the process is dogsh-t,'' Martin said. "Does don (Ross) know how badly the commission screwed him/the gov/missourians?''

Martin said Saturday he was deer hunting and had not seen the released e-mails.

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson on Saturday defended the coordination.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with communicating with coalition groups on issues of public policy,'' she said.

Despite the rumblings created through the late summer and early fall as Martin and other Blunt aides recruited interest groups, Blunt named Breckenridge to the high court on Sept. 7, 2007.

The decision was condemned by many who had been coordinating with Martin. He tried to quell the anger by warning that the appellate commission would have picked a less favorable candidate.

"The judge that the gov picked is not great but she is the best of the three and she is much better than ronnie white,'' Martin said. Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White retired from the high court to create the vacancy filled by Breckenridge.

Tipped off early that Breckenridge was picked, Leo told Martin that Blunt's decision "leaves a big problem for many future generations of Missourians.''

"Your boss is a coward, and conservatives have neither time nor patience for the likes of him,'' Leo wrote.

In a written statement Friday to the AP, Leo said he was asked for his personal opinion and provided it.

Although e-mails show Blunt staffers frequently sending pointed criticisms of judicial nominees, there were no such messages from Blunt. And documents show that when the governor's office interviewed candidates for spots on lower appeals courts, Blunt was only to be present for 15 minutes in meetings scheduled to last a half-hour.

E-mails also reveal efforts to develop a backlash against Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon's involvement in defending new abortion clinic licensing requirements against a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood.

A Sunshine Law request in 2007 for those records triggered the yearlong controversy over e-mails and record retention in Blunt's office.

Martin sent an e-mail to Blunt pointing out the lawsuit and suggesting it as a way to "rally'' support. Martin later sent e-mails strategizing how the office could remove Nixon — a potential gubernatorial rival — from the case and instead have the state defended by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.

"What we really will need is a local counsel pro bono (you?) and adf behind,'' Martin said in an e-mail to attorney David LaPlante. "I want to have it cost us not one nickel so we can say 'not at taxpayers expense.'''

 

Associated Press writers David A. Lieb, Christopher Leonard, Alan Scher Zagier, and Christopher Clark contributed to this report.

 

 


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