Mo. lawyers' group accused of violating ethics

Sunday, March 14, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The leader of a group that supports the direct election of judges has filed an ethics complaint against the Missouri Bar.

James Harris of ShowMe Better Courts filed the complaint Friday. The complaint alleges the state-created association violated the law by opposing the judicial selection initiative of ShowMe Better Courts.

The complaint says the bar is only supposed to use its money to educate people about the court system, not advocate for or against a political position.

Missouri Bar president Skip Walther of Columbia said the complaint is "replete with inaccuracies."

"To our knowledge, we haven't spent any money on opposing their initiative," Walther said.

At issue is how Missouri selects its judges. Currently, appellate judicial commissions made up of gubernatorial appointees and lawyers nominate a slate of judges, and the governor chooses among them.

Critics like Harris say the selection method allows trial lawyers to have a great deal of influence. That's why Harris' group is circulating a petition that -- if it makes the November ballot -- would call for the direct election of all Missouri judges. However, some fear the change would make the judicial selections process too political.

Harris claims the bar has been participating in a political campaign and should file campaign reports showing how it spends its money.

"Based on the plethora of information included in the complaint, it's clear they are advocating, not educating," said Jefferson City attorney Jared Craighead, who is representing ShowMe Better Courts. Craighead is the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.

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