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Missouri judicial selection process further opened

Friday, October 1, 2010 | 11:41 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Missouri residents will now be able to observe a previously closed state panel's interviews of prospective judges as well as to nominate potential candidates and find out the panel's votes.

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price announced the changes Thursday at an annual meeting of nearly 1,000 lawyers and judges in Columbia.

Missouri's nonpartisan nomination and selection plan for appointing judges to appeals courts and urban trial courts has been challenged by critics who favor direct partisan elections of all judges.

An effort to collect enough petition signatures to force a statewide vote on the issue in November fell short earlier this year.

Price told the Missouri Bar and Missouri Judicial Conference he still expects the "assault on our courts by various special interest groups" to continue. He said the changes were driven in part by bar association polls showing public support for greater openness.

"The answer was clear," Price said. "The people wanted more transparency."

Price acknowledged opening judicial interviews to the public could deter some candidates from applying. So did Columbia attorney Skip Walther, the state bar's outgoing president.

The latest changes are the most recent step in a gradual increase in the information available about those seeking spots on the bench.

In 2008, Price's predecessor agreed to disclose the qualifications and backgrounds of the three finalists whose names are forwarded by the selection panels for final approval by the governor.

Last year, the state's high court broadened that move with a decision to release the names of all nominees.

The 2008 changes also provided for public notification of the time and location of the nominating commissions' meetings. But until now, those discussions remained under wraps.

The two judicial commissions scrutinize applications 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. Judges in other counties are selected in traditional partisan elections.

The Missouri Plan, as the system is known, was created in 1940 and serves as a national model intended to keep judges from running high-priced political campaigns or from being selected by politicians.

James Harris, executive director of ShowMe Better Courts, credited the state Supreme Court's latest effort. He also said the group will continue to press for changes.

"We're glad to see Judge Price embrace some of the reforms that we've advocated for three years," Harris said. "This does not deter or slow down our commitment to comprehensive reform of our courts."

And Jim Lembke, a Republican state lawmaker from St. Louis, said Thursday he still favors changing the makeup of the two nominating panels by replacing a judicial member with a public appointee.

The Appellate Judicial Commission consists of the Chief Justice, three lawyers chosen by the Missouri Bar and three people appointed by the governor. The five-member commission that oversees lower court nominations consists of two lawyers, two gubernatorial appointees and one judge.

Lembke also questioned whether the public process would ultimately provide taxpayers with more information about the state's top legal arbiters.

"People don't know anything about the judges. And a lot of them don't care," he said. "We are busy people, we have busy lives. I don't think this is high on people's radar screen."


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