Mo. voters to decide on changes to judge selection

Friday, May 11, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri lawmakers on Thursday sent voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would bolster the governor's power in picking state appellate judges, capping off years of complaints about the process.

The amendment, which will appear on a statewide ballot later this year, would allow governors to appoint an additional person to the special state commission that nominates finalists for openings on the state Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. In addition, governors would get an extra nominee from which to choose in appointing a new judge.

Under Missouri's current judge selection plan, a nominating commission with three attorneys, three gubernatorial appointees and a Supreme Court judge submit a panel of three finalists for the governor to fill vacancies on appellate courts. Whomever the governor appoints stands for periodic retention elections, in which people decide whether to keep the judge in office without another candidate appearing on the ballot.

Some Republican lawmakers and other groups complain that attorneys have gained too much influence in choosing judges and that adding another gubernatorial appointee would provide more accountability to the public.

"Lawyers don't choose judges. The power to choose the judges rests with the people," said Rep. Stanley Cox, who sponsored the measure in the state House.

Cox, R-Sedalia, said the current system limits Missouri governors to nearly ministerial authority in the appointment of judges. He said increasing the power of the chief executive would give someone voters could hold responsible when bad decisions are made in selecting judges.

The state House gave the measure final legislative approval 84-71 -- just barely more than the minimum needed to approve the measure -- and senators last week passed the measure 19-12. The constitutional amendment also must be approved by voters to take effect.

The measure would replace the Supreme Court judge who currently serves on the nominating commission with an additional person selected by the governor. That would allow governors to appoint a majority of the panel responsible for weeding out the judicial finalists. A former appellate judge would serve on the nominating commission as a nonvoting member.

Opponents contend the changes would reverse reforms that have improved Missouri courts. Rep. Rory Ellinger said the changes remove safeguards and gives governors too much power, calling it a "radical destruction of the judiciary."

"Where are the checks and balances now? You eliminate them," said Ellinger, D-University City. "You eliminate your safeguard of the law if the executive overreaches."

Missouri Bar President Lynn Whaley Vogel said the proposed changes would inject politics into the process, adding that the existing method has produced fair and impartial judges for decades.

"This proposed constitutional amendment would give a governor more power than the president when it comes to choosing judges," she said.

The state adopted its current process for picking judges in 1940 in an effort to reduce the role of politics in the judiciary and lessen the influence of urban political machine bosses. But its critics have argued that politics still plays a role. Criticism intensified in 2007 when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt considered rejecting all three nominees for an opening on the Supreme Court. Blunt eventually appointed Judge Patricia Breckenridge, but the governor's chief of staff worked with conservative legal organizations to criticize the selection plan and to try to derail Breckenridge's appointment.

In 2010, Better Courts for Missouri backed a proposed ballot initiative that would have scrapped Missouri's current judicial selection method and replaced it with partisan elections. However, the organization failed to gather enough signatures to get the measure before voters. A spokesman for Better Courts for Missouri said Thursday the most recent proposal is a step forward.

"By increasing citizen accountability and reducing the influence of liberal special interest groups, these modest reforms will help improve the judicial selection process and ensure our courts serve all Missourians, not just the litigation industry," spokesman Rich Chrismer said.

Missouri uses a similar appointment process to select trial judges in St. Louis city and Jackson, Clay, Platte, St. Louis and Greene counties. The proposed constitutional amendment would not affect how those nominations are handled.

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