Names of more Missouri judge applicants to be released

Monday, December 14, 2009 | 6:31 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missourians will be able to get more information about those seeking to become judges because of a new rule approved Monday by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The rule change is the most recent step in a gradual increase in the information available about those seeking spots on the bench. It comes as critics of the nominating process argue that the current system is too secretive and should be replaced with partisan elections or one in which nominees must gain Senate approval.

Judicial applicants for the state Supreme Court, three regional appeals courts and trial courts in St. Louis city and Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties are evaluated by special nominating panels that forward three people for the governor, who then appoints one. Judges in other counties are selected in traditional partisan elections.

The state Supreme Court announced Monday that the names of those interviewed by the nominating panels now would be disclosed. Previously, only the three names forwarded to the governor have been released.

Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price said in an interview that the goal is to increase transparency without significantly diminishing the number of people willing to apply. He said the rule change has been considered for some time and that other changes to judicial selection are not needed.

"This was a time for us to see if this would work, to increase transparency without having too much adverse affect," Price said.

A Supreme Court spokeswoman said Monday that the list of people interviewed by the nominating commission would be released at the same time as the demographic information about all the applicants. The number of people interviewed for each judicial opening can vary.

The first opening to be filled under the new rule is a spot on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District to replace Judge John Parrish who retired Sept. 1 after spending more than three decades as a judge. Parrish started as an associate circuit judge in Camden County and had served on the appeals court since 1990.

More information has become available about judicial applicants since 2008, when the applications of the three people forwarded to the governor started to be released and the public was notified when and where the nominating commissions would meet. But the meetings and deliberations remain secret.

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

For the last several years, the group 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. For the 2010 election, the organization is backing ballot measures that would seek to have voters replace the entire system.

James Harris, the executive director of Better Courts for Missouri, said the publication of more applicant names is an improvement.

"That that is a small step in the right direction, but clearly more reform is needed," he said.

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