WHAT OTHERS SAY: Least offensive way to ruin judge selection still a bad idea

Friday, May 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Before each new session of the Missouri Legislature, freshman lawmakers in the House and Senate go through an orientation to learn about their new jobs. Veterans of the two chambers tell them how things really work. They listen to reporters, staffers and lobbyists explain their role in the process.

From now on, every new lawmaker also should be required to listen to a recording of a speech made on the Senate floor Thursday by Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon.

Mr. Goodman, an attorney by trade, explained in concise and nonthreatening language why the years-long movement to inject more politics into the process of choosing certain judges in Missouri is a bad idea. Then he explained why, even though the latest attempt by Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, to destroy the independence of the judiciary also is bad, he was not going to stand in its way.

Mr. Goodman reached a painful compromise that would allow a bad proposal to pass instead of a truly offensive one.

That doesn't sound all that inspirational.

But Mr. Goodman's speech, with his voice cracking and emotion buffeting every word, explained that for all the time wasted on the legislative floor making partisan political points instead of passing meaningful laws, some days truly are important.

"This is one of those days," Mr. Goodman said.

Senate Joint Resolution 51 asks voters to change the part of the Missouri Constitution that limits political influence in the selection of judges for the state's appellate courts and circuit courts in its three biggest cities. The current nonpartisan Missouri Plan gives the governor the job of choosing those judges from panels of three judges chosen by appellate judicial commissions.

Those commissions are made up of three lawyers, selected in elections run by the Missouri Bar, and three gubernatorial appointments. The chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court is the seventh member of the commission. The commission terms are staggered in such a way so that a governor cannot exert too much influence.

This system puts merit above politics.

Lembke's bill would change that, knocking the chief justice off the panel and switching the balance of power from lawyers to gubernatorial appointments. Worse, a single governor serving one term could stack the panel. That means that, should voters approve this needless proposal, governors would gain power over the judiciary that they don't currently have.

Why does Lembke want to do this?

He wants somebody to blame when he disagrees with judges' decisions.

"The people of Missouri have to be able to point to someone and say, 'You are responsible,'" Lembke said.

Giving politicians someone to blame is a lousy reason for changing a nationally renowned system that works.

The reality, as the Republican Goodman pointed out, is that wealthy Republican donors want more influence in selecting Missouri judges. If SJR 51 passes, they'll be back next year with more changes. If it fails, they'll use it as an excuse to propose direct elections so they, to use Goodman's words, can "sell justice to the highest bidder."

When SJR 51 comes up for a final vote, Missouri senators should dig deep into their consciences and vote it down. They should protect the constitution, not rip it to shreds.

Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Michael Williams May 4, 2012 | 2:12 p.m.

For Missouri Plan supporters, would you advocate that we select SCOTUS judges the same way?

(SCOTUS judges are currently nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.)

Why or why not?

This is a serious question not designed to put someone on the spot. I really want to know the various arguments.

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