Nonpartisan judges: Greene County voters backed switch to judicial retention

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Voters in Greene County, Mo., made history recently. In a vote that was little noted outside southwest Missouri, that county became the first in 35 years to opt into Missouri's Nonpartisan Court Plan. This is no small matter. Voters in Greene County confirmed that the 70-year-old Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan is the best way to choose judges for their growing community. In an overwhelming vote they eliminated partisan elections of trial-level judges.

Why switch now? While a number of reasons were presented to voters, the most compelling stem from the campaigns that judicial candidates must run to gain name recognition. Greene County has a population of about 260,000 and is one of Missouri's fastest growing counties. Partisan elections of judges were becoming more expensive to run. In a recent Republican primary about $200,000 was raised by candidates and their supporters.

Lawyers who regularly appear in front of these judges are faced with a no-win situation, frequently being asked to donate to a judge's campaign. Having judges, businesses and other groups donate to the election of a judge who may decide your case creates the appearance of impropriety and raises suspicions of influence on judicial decisions.

A vigorous campaign has been run in the last year and a half, largely by outside special-interest groups, to eliminate the Nonpartisan Court Plan in Missouri. Their goal is to gain more political influence over the selection of judges. Despite the influx of outside money and Wall Street Journal editorials against merit selection and the Greene County initiative, Missouri voters disagreed. By voting yes, they affirmed a commitment to merit-based nonpolitical selection of their judges. Voters in our adjoining state in Johnson County, Kan., also showed their commitment to keep politics out of the courts by rejecting a ballot initiative that would have replaced their merit selection process with partisan election of judges.

The Missouri Bar has been a supporter of the Nonpartisan Court Plan since its inception in 1940. The plan provides for merit selection for all judges of the Missouri Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, allowing each county to elect to participate in the plan for trial-level judges in their circuit. Greene County joins St. Louis City, St. Louis County, as well as Jackson, Clay and Platte counties in eliminating the partisan election of trial-level judges.

The Missouri Bar recognizes that in small communities -- where the main elements of a judicial campaign are a candidate's reputation and a handful of yard signs -- the public can be and is served well by partisan judicial elections. Greene County citizens are to be commended -- not because their judges will be selected under the Nonpartisan Court Plan, but for recognizing the potential danger to the integrity of the courts in their growing community.

Thomas M. Burke of St. Louis is the president of the Missouri Bar.

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