Better Courts for Missouri would like to legally change the way Missouri's judges are appointed by doing away with the current system in which the Governor appoints judges based on the recommendations of a seven-person commission. The Appellate Judicial Commission is comprised of three Missouri attorneys, three citizens, appointed by past and current governors, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Instead, the new system calls for selection by the governor with the approval of the Missouri Senate. The proposed selection process mirrors the current process in which federal judges are approved by the U.S. Senate.
Better Courts for Missouri recently submitted a request to the Secretary of State's office to begin a petition process to ask voters to approve their proposed change. Officials in that office currently are reviewing the wording of the constititutional amendment.
If approved, the group would begin a petition process to obtain 150,000 signatures of valid Missouri voters before the issue is placed on an upcoming ballot. If the necessary signatures are garnered, Missouri voters could decide the issue in August, or November, 2010.
Officials with Better Courts for Missouri could not be reached for comment. However, member Larry Russell is quoted as saying, in a written statement, "Missourians should have a say in who sits on their high courts, not just elite trial attorneys."
The group is opposed to what they call a secretive method in which the commission meets in private before making recommendations to the governor. The written statement continues, "This atmosphere of secrecy has allowed elite legal industry interest groups to use the commission as a platform to advance their interests. While opponents of the federal model may claim it's too political, the problem with Missouri's selection scheme is that the politics are hidden behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms, and Missourians have no idea their courts have been taken over by political special interests."
Although backers claim the plan will de-politicize the judicial selection process, opponents claim the opposite. They say the plan would further politicize judicial appointments by placing the decision in the hands of state lawmakers, from the governor to senators. "Would Missouri senators put politics aside and pass up a chance to grandstand or repeat their party's talking points of the day?" asks a written statement by opponents. "Politics would replace merit."
Opponents also point to the lengthy history of the process. "The non-partisan approach has served us very well for the last 75 years," Tom Burke, acting president of the Missouri Bar Association and a St. Louis attorney, said in an interview. A statement by opponents of the proposal continues: "Our state's Non-Partisan Court Plan has helped preserve the dignity of the courts, and by reducing the role of politics in judicial selection, the Plan remains an important safeguard of judicial impartiality. The obvious and simple truth is that the Non-Partisan Court Plan works and Missouri's courts are good places to get a fair hearing."
However, the proposed change would not affect the way judges are selected in smaller counties throughout Missouri, Burke said. In those counties, voters have the sole responsibility for selecting judges, much as voters select other statewide officeholders.
"In the smaller counties, voters have a greater opportunity to know the candidates," Burke said.
Therefore, the only counties potentially affected by the proposal are the larger counties, such as Jackson, Clay, Platte, St. Louis City and county, Burke said. However, he criticized the proposal for omitting Greene County, which includes Springfield, Mo. Burke said he's not sure if the deletion was intentional, or just an error.
Burke also points to the proposal's failure to address the issue of how judges would be re-appointed once their four or six-year terms expire. Under the current system, voters decide if judges should be retained upon reaching the end of their term.
"It (deletions) is just another example of confused drafting," Burke said. "Several issues are not well thought out and that's one of them."