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UPDATE: Group says Missouri court critics missed signature target

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 | 7:15 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Opponents of an attempt to require partisan elections for all Missouri judges said Tuesday that their analysis shows too few signatures were submitted to put the idea before voters.

But plan supporters said the analysis was flawed and called the group behind it "self-interested ambulance-chasers."

An initiative targeted for the November ballot would do away with Missouri's nonpartisan system for nominating and appointing judges to appeals courts and urban trial courts. Instead, all judicial candidates would run under party labels, such as Republican or Democrat, as they already do for many trial courts.

Missouri adopted the nominating system in 1940 to minimize the influence of politics in the judiciary. Backers of the current system say partisan elections could make the courts more political, but critics contend the courts remain political and that trial attorneys have too much influence in picking judges.

To get a proposed constitutional amendment on the Missouri ballot, organizers need signatures equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the 2008 governor's election from six of Missouri's nine congressional districts. The deadline for turning in signatures was earlier this month.

Election officials have until Aug. 3 to determine whether the measure qualifies for the ballot.

The Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Action Fund, which opposes the proposed ballot measure, used Missouri open-records law to obtain all the signatures submitted for the court petition.

Its analysis concluded that too few signatures were submitted in at least five congressional districts. In a sixth district — one covering the Kansas City area — there could be enough signatures only if nearly all turned in are determined to be valid.

Ken Morley, an adviser for opponents of the proposal, said the lack of signatures indicates Missouri residents do not want to change how judges are picked.

"While we were looking forward to the voters rejecting this proposal at the ballot box in November, the voters decided to do us one better and reject this bad idea during the signature collection process. And they rejected it overwhelmingly," he said.

The ballot measure was submitted just before the state's deadline by ShowMe Better Courts. James Harris, a leader for the organization, said in a statement Tuesday that he does not believe opponents' analysis.

"Based on what the petition company reports, we believe we were able to overcome the trial lawyers' race-based suppression campaign and frivolous delaying lawsuits to collect the number of signatures necessary to put this before the voters," Harris said.

Ballot measure supporters have said that those gathering signatures have been subjected to physical intimidation by opponents, who deny the claims. Supporters obtained a temporary restraining order, but the judge later dissolved it.

Harris said earlier this month that more than 250,000 signatures were turned in. Opponents said Tuesday their analysis shows fewer than 200,000 actually were submitted.

Under Missouri's current judicial system, people interested in becoming judges for certain courts apply to special nominating panels that forward three finalists to the governor, who then appoints one. Voters then decide in periodic retention elections whether to keep that judge in place.

The system is used for the state Supreme Court, three regional appeals courts, and trial courts in the city of St. Louis and Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties.

 


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