GUEST COMMENTARY: Justice for the people should not be for sale

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:10 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why is it that every time The Missouri Bar speaks out against judicial elections they choose to attack those who want reform instead of engage in a logical debate about the facts? I suspect it is because they know they can’t win the argument, so they figure they should just attack those who speak up instead.

No matter how much they hide behind the prestige of the bar, the fact remains: Skip Walther and his friends are not disinterested parties looking out for the general welfare of Missouri residents. Mr. Walther’s status in the Missouri Bar does not automatically give him neutrality in this debate, nor does it mean he is any more qualified to pick judges or debate the merits of judicial selection than any other Missourian.  

The truth is that Mr. Walther is a member of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and has a vested financial and ideological interest in maintaining control over the judicial selection system, which is why he and his friends vehemently oppose any change to the Missouri Plan. Last year, the largest verdict in Missouri was $89 million in a wrongful death case. The attorney who represented the plaintiff stands to make nearly $29 million from just that one trial. Putting the people in charge threatens to put an end to such large verdicts, or at least make it harder for attorneys to rake in millions. This is why Mr. Walther and other trial attorneys oppose reform – they do not want to lose control over the selection of judges and risk lowering their income.

The current version of the Missouri Plan should really be named the Lawyers’ Plan – it works only for them. The current commission-based process gives the Chief Justice and three lawyers more influence over the direction of our courts than Missouri’s 6 million citizens. The current commission meets behind closed doors, preventing the public from knowing how they pick our future judges. In a recent Missouri Law Review article by Professor Stephen Ware of the University of Kansas he classifies the Missouri Plan as the most elitist and undemocratic way to select judges – it removes the people from the process almost entirely by guaranteeing that at least one of the three nominees selected by the Appellate Judicial Commission joins the court, regardless of the opinion of the people, the legislature or even the governor, who is forced to either choose someone from the three-person panel or let the commission make the selection.

Unfortunately, the trial attorneys’ continued control of our courts has cost our state.  Missouri’s courts routinely receive low marks by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association. In fact, the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform ranked Missouri 37th in the nation for fairness and 39th for judicial competence.  Our current system is not giving us the courts we deserve – instead, it is giving us the courts that lawyers want. This costs us jobs, increases the costs of insurance and encourages doctors and businesses to leave Missouri for greener pastures in states that have more sensible legal systems.

Currently, our highest courts are accountable to no one but a small group of lawyers and elite commissioners with political ties.  Behind every lawyer or commissioner are people who are just as affected by the judiciary, only they have no voice in the judicial selection system.

I think it is time for these citizens, long at the mercy of a court system meticulously constructed expressly to serve the legal profession, to at long last have a voice in the process. Only then can we be confident that our courts are just.

Our proposed ballot measure is simple. It will allow Missourians to elect our high court judges, just like readers in Boone County do for local judges. It will also shorten the term for appellate judges from 12 years to 8, doing away with the current system’s essentially automatic pension – judges would now have to be reelected in order to collect a pension; they would no longer be entitled to one just by successfully getting through a retention election.

I have confidence that the people of Missouri are smarter than ambulance chasers and can make their own decisions about who should serve on our highest courts. It just makes sense to let the people have a voice and select our judges.  

James Harris is executive director of ShowMe Better Courts, the sponsors of a petition to replace the Missouri Plan with judicial elections.


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Gregg Bush May 27, 2010 | 9:11 a.m.

Consistent low marks from both the US Chamber of Congress and American Tort Reform Association are badges of honor. Calling your opponents "ambulance chasers" robs you of any credibility. Did you forget the first sentence of your column? Pitiful.

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