WHAT OTHERS SAY: Amendment would damage courts

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 | 10:53 a.m. CDT

A group of outraged Missourians, tired of corruption in their courts, got to work to bring about change. The year was 1937.

They used the initiative petition process to put what's called "the Missouri Plan" on the ballot. Voters passed it in 1940, ending an era of "boss" politics within the courts.

On Nov. 6, voters will render a verdict on the future of the Missouri Plan. It's listed on the ballot as Constitutional Amendment 3, and, in our opinion, it would unnecessarily change a nonpartisan court plan that has been imitated by more than 30 states across the nation. Under the plan, when a vacancy occurs for a judge on the state Supreme Court or an appellate court, a judicial nominating commission interviews interested applicants and picks three of them as judicial nominees. The governor then selects the new judge from one of those three nominees.

Members of the selection commission are lawyers and non-lawyers from different parts of the state, and terms have been staggered such that they are not necessarily of the same political party as the governor. This keeps the process apolitical. In addition, the three largest metropolitan areas of the state have adopted this plan for their trial-level judges. Greene County voters recently adopted the plan.

Once appointed, these judges are regularly evaluated by lawyers and members of the public who serve as jurors, and the ratings they receive are publicized by the Missouri Bar so that voters, who are asked whether they should be retained, can focus on their skills and work. The names of the applicants for these positions are public record. Members of the public may send letters to the nominating commission or to the governor to express their opinion about a candidate.

The ballot proposal that will be before you on Nov. 6 would modify the composition of the Appellate Judicial Commission and the selection process for appointing judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. It would eliminate the chief justice as a member and give the governor the power to appoint four citizen members, who may be lawyers, in addition to the three lawyers the bar association appoints. It would increase from three to four the number of nominees the commission presents to the governor and would eliminate the staggered terms of the commissioners, allowing the governor to appoint four members in his first year in office.

Since 2002, efforts have been made to change the Missouri Plan. Those efforts have largely been supported through out-of-state efforts and dollars. This newspaper has consistently voiced opposition to the efforts to overturn the Missouri Plan.

On Aug. 1, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ray Price stepped down after 20 years of service, including two terms as chief justice. He made his decision to retire now because he wanted to be sure that his successor would be appointed under the Missouri Plan. Price told us Friday that those who want to change the plan have lost sight of the common good of a fair and balanced court system.

"The proposals (to change the plan) are interjected with influence and the power of money," Price said.

There's no question that big money is being spent to try to influence judges. Price said that from 1990 to 1999, $83.3 million was spent on judicial elections nationwide. That number more than doubled from the year 2000 to 2009.

We don't want judges who are bought and paid for in Missouri. And we don't want Constitutional Amendment 3 to go into effect.

Copyright The Joplin Globe. Distributed by The Associated Press.

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