WHAT OTHERS SAY: Protect nonpartisan judge selection in Missouri

Monday, October 8, 2012 | 10:39 a.m. CDT

The latest volley in the contest for judicial selection in Missouri will land in the voters’ court on Nov. 6.

It won’t be delivered with as much force as expected. Backers of Constitutional Amendment 3 abruptly announced last week they would cease campaigning for the ballot measure.

Still, voters should be prepared to say “no” to a bad idea. And they should remain vigilant for even worse measures to come.

For 70 years, Missouri has been a model for other states because of its way of selecting Supreme Court and appeals court judges.

Rather than force would-be judges to seek campaign funds and votes, or curry favor with politicians, the Missouri Plan sets up a nonpartisan commission to screen candidates for vacancies on the bench. Composed of three lawyers elected by members of the Missouri Bar, three lay persons appointed by the governor and one Supreme Court judge, the commission recommends a panel to the governor, who makes the final selection.

Separate, smaller commissions follow the precedent to fill vacancies on many of the state’s circuit courts.

The Missouri Plan has produced quality judges and courts. Judges are selected based on qualifications, and litigants don’t have to worry whether their judges have been influenced by someone’s campaign contribution.

But not everyone is pleased with an independent judiciary. Groups and individuals who use wealth to manipulate politicians want to exert control over judges, too.

The Missouri Plan has been under attack for a decade by critics inside and outside of the state. Schemes to undermine it pop up annually in the state legislature. Amendment 3 is this year’s attempt.

The measure seeks to change the makeup of the nominating commission. It retains the three lawyers elected by the Missouri Bar, but gives the governor four appointees. The Supreme Court judge becomes an advisory member.

Rather than naming commission members for six-year terms on a staggered basis, as the plan does now, Amendment 3 calls for the governor to make all four appointments at the start of his or her four-year term.

That means the governor would control the majority of the nominating commission for an entire term. And while monied interests couldn’t buy a judge, they could potentially dictate to a governor who should be on the commission, in the expectation of seating judges of a particular mindset.

Supporters abandoned their campaign to pass Amendment 3 because they objected to the ballot summary written by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Carnahan’s summary informs voters that the measure increases the role of the governor in judicial selection and removes the requirement that the governor’s appointees not be lawyers.

Opponents of nonpartisan judicial selection now say they’ll regroup and try for a ballot measure calling for direct election of judges in two years.

That, of course, is what critics of the Missouri Plan have wanted all along. Combined with Missouri’s tolerance for unlimited campaign contributions, their strategy is corruption in the making.

Voters should show their support for integrity on the bench by rejecting Amendment 3. And they should let it be known that Missouri’s courts are not for sale.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.


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