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UPDATE: Missouri court plan critics propose new judicial selection process

Monday, July 13, 2009 | 5:22 p.m. CDT; updated 9:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 13, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Critics of the way Missouri picks judges said Monday they want voters to overhaul the process during the 2010 election to make it more like the one used to choose federal judges.

Currently, special committees meet in private sessions to screen all applicants for state appeals courts and some urban trial courts. The panels then nominate three finalists and the governor appoints one to the court. Judges also stand for periodic retention elections.

Trial judges in the city of St. Louis and the counties of Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis are selected through that nominating process. Trial judges in other counties are selected through partisan elections.

Critics of the nominating system filed a proposed constitutional amendment Monday that would scrap the current method for one more closely resembling the process used to pick federal judges. Governors could select whomever they choose, subject to Senate confirmation. But to stay on the bench, judges would stand for an election in which voters decide whether to keep them in office.

The ballot measure also would prevent additional counties from opting into the appointment system instead of choosing trial judges in partisan elections.

For the constitutional amendment to appear on the ballot, supporters must gather from six of the state's nine congressional districts signatures that equal 8 percent of the votes cast in the 2008 governor election. That amounts to about 157,000 signatures.

Missouri's judicial selection method has been under fire in recent years — particularly from some Republicans — who contend that trial attorneys have hijacked the process and that liberals seeking spots on state courts have been favored.

"I don't know how anyone can defend the current scheme where you have a bunch of rich trial attorneys getting together and deciding who they want," said James Harris, of the activist group Better Courts for Missouri.

Missouri adopted its process in 1940 to reduce the role of politics in the judiciary and lessen the influence of urban political machine bosses. But its critics contend politics still are involved and that judges are now picked in a secret process that is not accountable to the public.

Backers of Missouri's current system, which include the Missouri Bar and the judiciary, contend the process diminishes the politics behind selections. Missouri Bar President Tom Burke said the proposal from critics would "make partisan politics the heart and soul" of selecting judges.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Burke said.

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys said Monday the ballot measure is an effort to "hoodwink" voters and alter how the courts operate.

For the last several years, Better Courts for Missouri has urged the legislature to change the makeup of the nominating commissions to include fewer lawyers and more lay citizens. The group also wants the governor to have the ability to demand a new panel of judicial candidates.

The criticism intensified in 2007 when Republican former Gov. Matt Blunt considered rejecting all three nominees for an opening on the Supreme Court.

Blunt eventually appointed Judge Patricia Breckenridge, but the governor's chief of staff, Ed Martin, worked with conservative legal organizations to criticize the judicial selection plan and to try to derail Breckenridge's appointment.

Harris worked in Blunt's administration and left the governor's office in spring of 2006.

This year, the House for the first time approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the governor more options when appointing judges. It also would have changed the membership of the panels that submit judicial nominees and required them to conduct portions of their business in public. The measure was filibustered in the Senate and never came to a vote.

Ballot measure supporters said Monday that they are out of patience with the legislature and want to let citizens decide how to pick judges.


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