JEFFERSON CITY — Although it would give governors greater power, Gov. Jay Nixon and challenger Dave Spence both oppose a November ballot measure that would modify Missouri's means of appointing judges to the state Supreme Court and its three appeals courts.
If approved by voters, the proposed constitutional amendment would give governors greater sway in shaping the special commissions that screen judicial applicants and also give the state's chief executive a wider variety of finalists from which to make judicial appointments.
But neither the Democratic governor nor his Republican opponent are backing the measure, preferring to instead keep the status quo for appointing judges.
The proposal was referred to the ballot by the Republican-led legislature, which has complained that lawyers — in particular, those who handle injury and liability lawsuits — have too much influence on the current judicial nominating panels. But Spence said the proposed constitutional amendment also has its faults.
"I think it puts too much power with the governor," Spence said.
The seven-member Appellate Judicial Commission, which screens judicial applicants, currently consists of a Supreme Court judge, three citizens appointed by the governor and three lawyers selected by fellow members of The Missouri Bar. The ballot proposal would increase the number of gubernatorial appointees on the panel to four and would eliminate a current prohibition on the citizen members being attorneys. The proposal also would remove the Supreme Court judge from the panel and instead have a former judge serve as a nonvoting member.
Additionally, the ballot measure would increase to four, instead of three, the number of finalists submitted by the panel to the governor.
The rest of the judicial selection process — sometimes dubbed the Missouri Plan — would remain the same. Appointees to the Supreme Court and appeals courts still would stand for "yes" or "no" retention elections after serving at least a year in office and, if they win, face further retention elections every 12 years after that.
"The Missouri Plan really was a model for other states — I'm fine with just leaving it as is," Spence said.
Nixon campaign spokeswoman Channing Ansley said Missouri's system has ensured judges are selected based on their legal qualifications, not politics.
"Gov. Nixon feels the Missouri Plan has allowed him to name qualified judges to the appellate bench, and the plan has his support," Ansley said in a written statement.
Some supporters of the ballot measure recently declared they would not actively campaign for it because they believe the written summary that voters will see is biased against the measure. The group Better Courts for Missouri said it will instead pursue a different approach for a future ballot. That could include an initiative proposing the direct election of judges, in which candidates run under party labels such as Democrat or Republican — much like what already occurs for circuit judges in rural parts of the state.
But both Nixon and Spence also have expressed opposition to that.
"I'm all for citizens making more decisions, but we just need to take the politics out of it," Spence said. "I don't know if we need to spend another millions and millions and millions more on elections."