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Court applicant shares worries; governor denied info from panel
Republican Mark Mittleman took issue with questions regarding his view of "activist" judges.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- An applicant who was not chosen in the panel to fill a Supreme Court vacancy shared concerns Friday about the interview process, as Gov. Matt Blunt was denied detailed information from the special judicial panel.
In Missouri, judges on the Supreme Court and three regional appeals courts are picked through a selection process. The Appellate Judicial Commission meets and interviews applicants privately and winnows the list to three names. The governor then fills the spot from that list. If he's not done within 60 days, the panel makes the selection.
This time around, 30 people applied for the job, the commission said, though it did not identify anyone but the finalists.
One of those who said he applied, Republican lawyer Mark Mittleman, of St. Louis, shared concerns Friday about some of the questions he was asked during the interviews.
"Several of the interviews were exactly what I'd have expected them to be," he said. "However, there were some other interviews that included some elements that I thought were not so appropriate, that were a bit troubling to me."
In particular, Mittleman took issue with questions regarding his view of "activist" judges, of the state's plan for selecting judges, and of his membership in the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
He and another applicant said Friday that they were asked about a Capitol billboard funded by the Adam Smith Foundation, a self-described conservative group, opposing "an activist court." The foundation later expressed "disgust with the blatantly liberal panel" of finalists.
"I really didn't know exactly what to think," Mittleman said. "I had a sense there was something in the background there that I didn't know about."
The judicial commission had no immediate response.
Missouri Bar president Ron Baird declined to comment Friday on whether the commission's handling of the interview process was appropriate, and two law professors did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Blunt's general counsel, Henry Herschel, asked for details from the special judicial panel on how it reached its decision. He asked for interview transcripts, details on meeting times and notices and the questions asked. He said it would help the governor as he evaluates the nominees.
The judicial commission refused, saying the process is confidential. In a letter responding to the governor's request, commission member and secretary Richard McLeod wrote that the only information the commission can provide to the governor are the nominees' applications and a general overview of how the process works.
Blunt's office said it would keep seeking the information.
"Government in secret is typically bad government," spokesman Rich Chrismer said. "This letter renews our commitment to obtaining all of the information. Additionally, we are reviewing the applications that were provided by the commission, but we have serious concerns that those applications may not be complete."
Supreme Court candidates completed one-on-one interviews, held at the University of Missouri-Columbia Law School, with each commissioner, and the questions and topics varied, Mittleman and others said.
The commission is made of seven members: the chief justice, three lawyers elected by members of the Missouri Bar and three people appointed by the governor, who serve staggered terms. Blunt has named one member to the group, Enterprise Rent-A-Car president Don Ross.
Mittleman said that while he does not want to move to direct election of judges or appointment by the governor, he thinks the membership of the special judicial panel that chooses the finalists could be improved.
Possible changes are requiring an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, or the legislature could have some role in choosing members, not just the Missouri Bar and the governor, he said.