This fall, voters in Missouri will be asked to select their preference for federal, state and local office holders. They will also be asked to make a small, but unnecessary tweak to the highly regarded "Missouri Plan" for selecting judges.
Each one of those votes will be important, influencing how our federal, state and local governments perform. The change in the Missouri Plan, however, will accomplish little, including its stated reason — providing more accountability when judges make unpopular decisions.
Here's how it all started. The Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan was established in 1940 as a reaction to the increasing role of politics in judicial behavior during the 1930s. The "Boss Tom" Pendergast political machine in Kansas City was so powerful it influenced elections, including judges, and left the citizens of Missouri fed up with what many saw as influence peddling. A plan to prevent the machine from stacking the courts — especially the state Supreme Court and circuit courts — came together and made it on the ballot through an initiative referendum. Changes have been made over the years, including adding Greene County to the plan in 2008.
The plan is simple. A nonpartisan judicial commission — composed of three lawyers elected by the Missouri Bar Association, three citizens selected by the governor, and the state Supreme Court chief justice — reviews applications of people who wish to join the bench. Three candidates are selected and sent to the governor, who selects one for the open position. After that, the voters can choose whether to retain the person.
The plan became a national model, with more than 30 other states adopting the plan in some form.
So, what's the problem? Well, there doesn't really seem to be one. There are those who feel the plan is no more effective in providing fair and qualified judges as a straight-forward election. There are those who hold the plan up as the best thing since sliced bread.
Yet, Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, contends the plan gives too much power to trial lawyers and leaves voters no one to hold responsible when they don't like the way a judge rules. So, after the House and the Senate gave the idea narrow support, voters will be asked to approve a change that would give the governor four appointments and remove the chief justice.
That's a bad idea. If we can't trust the chief justice's opinion about good candidates for other judgeships, then we have a bigger problem.
It makes us wonder what Lembke is hoping to get out of this — fixing no real problem with a change that offers no real solution.
Reprinted with permission.