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UPDATE: Backers of Missouri court changes drop campaign plans

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 | 12:26 p.m. CDT; updated 4:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 2, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Supporters of a Missouri ballot measure changing the selection process for top judges said Tuesday that they won't actively campaign for it because they don't like the summary that voters will see.

Proponents of the Nov. 6 ballot measure said they would not appeal a recent court ruling rejecting their challenge to the official ballot summary prepared by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office. They issued a statement saying they still believe Carnahan's summary is biased against the measure and, because of that, won't spend money for a traditional campaign needed to "warn voters" about the summary and persuade them to vote yes.

Instead, supporters said they will save their money to fight again in the future for what they described as "meaningful judicial reform."

"We made a smart business decision and kind of paused and regrouped and decided we're going back to the drawing board," said James Harris, executive director of Better Courts for Missouri.

The unusual twist comes as opponents of the measure had been raising thousands of dollars from law firms in anticipation of a costly advertising battle.

Proposed constitutional amendment 3 asks voters whether to change the membership of a screening panel that submits nominees to the governor to fill vacancies on the Missouri Supreme Court and the state's three appeals courts. It also would give the governor more choices for appointees.

Under Missouri's current court plan, a nominating commission comprised of three attorneys selected by members of The Missouri Bar, three gubernatorial appointees and a Supreme Court judge submit a panel of three finalists to the governor. The proposed amendment would allow the governor to appoint four members to the panel and make the Supreme Court judge merely an adviser instead of a voting member. It also would expand the number of finalists submitted to the governor to four instead of three.

The measure was referred to the ballot by the Republican-led legislature, which has complained that trial lawyers have too much sway in the judicial selection process. But lawmakers did not write their own ballot summary for the measure, so that task fell to Carnahan, a Democrat.

Carnahan's summary states that the proposal "gives the governor increased authority to:

— appoint a majority of the commission that selects these court nominees, and

— appoint all lawyers to the commission by removing the requirement that the governor's appointees be non-lawyers."

Supporters of the measure claimed in a lawsuit that the summary was insufficient and unfair — partly because it highlighted the potential for all appointees to be lawyers when the governor could just as easily appoint no lawyers to the panel. The suit also claimed that Carnahan's summary failed to mention what supporters contend would be the primary effect — reducing the influence of the bar by increasing the number of gubernatorial appointees to the panel.

A Cole County judge and an appeals court panel both ruled against the lawsuit last month.

An appeal to the Supreme Court, if successful, could have created procedural complications for local election officials, because absentee voting is already under way using the ballot summary written by the secretary of state's office.

Better Courts for Missouri gave $80,000 last month to a campaign committee for the ballot measure, and supporters had been in the midst devising a campaign strategy when they lost their legal challenge, Harris said. Their statement Tuesday also included remarks from House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, supporting the decision not to mount a campaign. He called Carnahan's summary "overtly biased" and "politically charged."

"The amendment proposes a modest and minimal set of reforms, but the ballot language paints a very different picture that would certainly be very hard to overcome," Jones said.

Carnahan has defended her description as accurate and fair.

Opponents of the ballot measure said Tuesday that they will forge ahead with their campaign. The Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Committee reported about $20,000 in its account at the end of June. Since then, it has raised at least $410,000 in contributions greater than $5,000 each, according to online records of the Missouri Ethics Commission. Many of those contributions came from law firms.

"We will continue to educate Missouri voters on why it's dangerous to allow politicians to control what is now a nonpartisan process," said Skip Walther, the group's treasurer.


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