UPDATE: Judge selection plan gets initial OK from Missouri House

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY – A proposed constitutional amendment that would alter the way a state committee picks Missouri judges gained initial support in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The proposal, authored by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, would change the Missouri Plan, a non-partisan system created in 1940 that allows for the selection of judges for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Currently, to fill a judicial opening, a panel of seven people known as the Nonpartisan Judicial Commission – composed of the state Supreme Court chief justice, three lawyers selected by the Missouri Bar Association and three residents selected by the governor – submit a list of three candidates for the open seat. 

The governor then selects one.  

If the appointment is not confirmed by the governor within 60 days, the decision is left to the panel. Similar systems exist in more than 30 states. 

The revised Missouri Plan won first-round House approval by an 82-72 vote during Tuesday's session with 20 Republicans and all but one Democrat voting against it. If Cox's proposal is signed by the governor and ratified by Missouri voters, the selection panel would gain a fourth citizen-representative, who would be selected by the governor. The legislation would also increase the number of candidates submitted to the governor to four and allow the governor to reject the first list.

Judicial selections would also require Senate confirmation.

With Republicans dominating Missouri's upper chamber, various Democratic opponents to the proposal voiced concern that requiring Senate consent would inject partisan politics into a system designed to avoid that.

"In many, many years we have not had a failure in selecting judges with this system," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia said. "The bill's supporters want a political judiciary, and that's all this bill does."

Cox, in turn, said it would limit secrecy in the process of choosing judges by making the name and professional background of all judicial candidates public.

"Right now, it is a system controlled by a small group of people who want to create a status quo," he said. "Like other parts of government, selecting judges should be a more open process."

Kelly challenged Cox to name a bad state justice, saying there were none because the Missouri Plan has worked and isn't in need of change.

Other supporters praised the would-be constitutional amendment for its ability to hold judges — who can dramatically change policies in the state — accountable to public scrutiny.

"It just gives voters their right to have some say in the process," said Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City. "Citizens should know who their judges are and have confidence that they will do the right things."

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