JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys and judges hopeful of winning a spot on the Missouri Supreme Court took turns publicly recounting their qualifications Wednesday as a special nominating panel opened the doors for the first time on its once secretive interview sessions.
Sitting in leather chairs around tables typically reserved for attorneys being peppered with questions by Supreme Court judges, the seven members of the Appellate Judicial Commission asked prospective members of the state's highest court about their work experiences, mentors and whether they could review legal cases with a "clean slate."
In one instance, they also asked an applicant about a lawsuit alleging he had failed to provide effective legal counsel to a client.
Fewer than two dozen people, several of whom were with the media or an activist group, watched the interviews, which are scheduled to continue Thursday. The nominating commission is to whittle the 13 applicants down to three finalists from which Gov. Jay Nixon can appoint a replacement for Judge Michael Wolff, who resigned in August after 13 years on the court.
The panel's deliberation process will remain closed to the public, though it plans to release its vote for the nominees.
Judges in most Missouri counties currently run as Democrats or Republicans in competitive elections. But Missouri uses a nonpartisan review process to pick judges for trial courts in certain urban counties, three regional appeals courts and the Missouri Supreme Court. Judges appointed by the governor then are subject to periodic retention elections in which voters' only options are "yes" or "no." Nearly all such judges win election.
Until recently, virtually everything about the judicial nominating process was a secret. But the court system has gradually made more information public in an attempt to pacify critics who have tried to overhaul or abolish the judicial selection system in favor of partisan elections. In 2008, for example, the court began disclosing the qualifications and backgrounds of the three finalists and provided public notice of the time and location of its meetings, although the meetings themselves remained closed to the public. In 2009, the court changed its policy to release the names of all applicants — not just the three finalists.
Last year, the court announced it would open the interview process to the public. Wednesday marked the first time since then that interviews had been held for a Supreme Court vacancy.
Representatives of Better Courts for Missouri, which has led the opposition to Missouri's current judicial selection method, recorded Wednesday's interviews with the intent of posting excerpts on YouTube.
The open interviews are "a small step in the right direction," said the group's executive director, James Harris. "Government behind closed doors is never good."
Last year, Better Courts for Missouri led an unsuccessful petition drive for an initiative that would have asked voters to adopt a system of direct elections for all judges. At one point, the group sought an injunction against opponents who had been countering their signature-gathering efforts. Among the Supreme Court candidates interviewed Wednesday was St. Peters attorney Richard Gartner, who said he was one of several attorneys involved in the opposition to that injunction request.
After being questioned about that Wednesday, Gartner told the selection panel that he supports the current nominating process, noting in partial jest that it was his best chance of becoming a judge after having lost three partisan elections for a St. Charles County judgeship. He said after his interview that he was glad the quizzing had been opened to the public.
"I don't think any of this stuff should be done under a shroud of secrecy," Gartner said. "It's important to get this out in the open because the only way people then will understand how important this type of process is is if they see what's going on, when it's going on."
Chief Justice Richard Teitelman serves as chairman of the nominating commission, which also consists of three lawyers elected by members of The Missouri Bar and three people appointed by the governor. Teitelman began each interview with a question about the applicant's experience and skills. But many other questions were specific to the individual applicants.
For example, commissioner Donald Ross asked Lake Ozark attorney Timothy Cisar about a lawsuit pending against him. Cisar explained that a former client in a criminal defense case was alleging he provided negligent legal counsel. The nominating panel did not probe Cisar with any further questions about the lawsuit.