Some ideas are so outrageously, irredeemably bad that you just know they won’t go away. One of the worst is the recurring effort to destroy Missouri’s non-partisan plan for picking judges.
Its latest eruption was the little-noticed filing of an initiative petition that would replace that 70-year-old system with direct election of all judges. Another petition, previously submitted to the secretary of state’s office by the same front man, would give the governor the power of direct appointment.
Why would anybody want to dump a system that is admired and copied nationally, and that has functioned without scandal since it was introduced in 1940? In two words: ideology and money.
You may recall that in last year’s legislative session a joint resolution to gut the Missouri Plan, as it is known, got through the House but died in the Senate. You may even recall the recent Kansas City Star investigation that revealed that the litigious Humphreys family of Joplin poured $250,000 into Republican coffers immediately after that House action. The middle man for the largesse was Rod Jetton, the former speaker of the House.
Another clue may be that the front man for the euphemistically named Better Courts for Missouri is James Harris, a lobbyist and political advertising operator who used to be appointments secretary to our Boy Governor. In states without our plan, campaigns for Supreme Court seats typically cost millions, most of it spent on attack ads.
I was reminded of all this Tuesday morning, when I attended a breakfast meeting of university retirees to hear Skip Walther, president of the Missouri Bar Association, explain the assault and the importance of repelling it again.
Skip described the non-partisan court plan and traced its history. The Kansas City Star played a big part in that, too, as the paper campaigned against the Pendergast political machine that had come to control the elected appeals courts in the 1930s. Amazing, isn’t it, how often journalism turns out to be a force for good?
The non-partisan system covers judges of our Supreme Court, courts of appeals and the circuit courts in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. In the other, more rural, counties – including the circuit that includes Boone and Callaway – we elect our judges. We have 11 of them, including associates who handle lesser offenses.
(Greene County, which includes Springfield, just switched to this plan last year, out of public dismay at the increasing politicization and high cost of the election campaigns. Skip noted that the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the change, while John Ashcroft opposed it.)
Under the merit plan, applicants for judgeships are screened by a seven-member selection commission. The commission recommends three candidates to the governor, who makes the appointments.
Part of the opposition to that system is that lawyers play a big part. Four of the seven commission members come from the Missouri Bar. The other three are appointed by the governor. Makes sense to me. Judges have to be lawyers, and who better to evaluate their peers than other lawyers?
A bigger reason for the push to change, I suspect, is that we wind up with judges who aren’t sufficiently conservative to satisfy the right-wingers.
Skip pointed out that the Missouri Plan has been copied, in whole or part, by 34 other states. Public opinion polls show that Missouri judges are held in higher esteem than legislators, lawyers or journalists. Actually, he didn’t mention journalists, but in the interest of accuracy, I must.
So what we have is a system that works, that enjoys public and peer support, and that has produced no evidence of corruption. Opponents seek to replace it either with an ideological system (appointment by the governor with confirmation by the Senate) or a purely political and hugely expensive one (popular election).
That’s a bad idea that just won’t die.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.