Former judge leads effort to oust appellate incumbents

Saturday, September 7, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A recently retired judge is mounting a campaign to oust a Supreme Court judge and four state appeals judges up for retention elections this November.

Former Judge Ralph Voss says he has nothing against the sitting judges. His complaint is against Missouri's judicial system.

The defeat of incumbent judges -- a rare occurrence -- could send a message that procedural court changes are needed, Voss says.

But some say it is Voss who is the problem, by making broad accusations that impugn the integrity of honest judges.

Judges on Missouri's Supreme Court and appeals courts are appointed by the governor from a slate of three nominees selected by a panel of lawyers, judges and citizens.

After a year or two, the appointed judges face retention elections on whether they should serve 12-year terms. If elected, they go before voters every 12 years thereafter. The judges don't have opponents like candidates in traditional elections. Rather the ballot simply poses a yes or no question.

Up for retention elections this year are Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith, Eastern District appeals Judge George Draper III, Southern District appeals Judge Nancy Rahmeyer and Western District appeals judges Ronald Hollinger, Lisa White Hardwick and Robert Ulrich.

Also up for retention elections are 54 associate and circuit judges in St. Louis and Jackson, Clay, Platte and St. Louis counties, which all use the nonpartisan appointment system. Judges in other counties run as party candidates.

Voss says he has no plans to target circuit judges nor Rahmeyer, because he says Missouri's southern district isn't beset with the problems that exist in St. Louis and Kansas City.

His efforts consist of weekly letters sent to hundreds of people by e-mail and are aimed at appellate judges because he says they have the most ability to influence court decisions and rules.

Voss, 60, is a Republican from Linn who served as an associate circuit judge in Osage County from 1979 through 2001 and could have run for re-election this year. Instead, he resigned at the end of last year to focus on his campaign against the judicial system.

His two main complaints:

Judicial rules on venue -- the location of a trial -- allow personal injury lawsuits from all over the Midwest to be filed in St. Louis and Kansas City even though they have no logical connection to the cities. Urban juries tend to award larger financial judgments because the jurors are more likely to be uneducated, drug and alcohol abusers biased against businesses, Voss says. The big judgments drive up insurance costs for everyone, he says.

The state lacks sound restrictions on lawyers who take clients based on contingency fees, meaning they get nothing if they lose but get a share often equal to 30 percent if they win. In many injury cases, people are naturally going to get the maximum allowed under an insurance policy, Voss says. Yet lawyers, knowing there is no risk of a loss, collect big contingency fees and so reduce what their clients would have otherwise gotten, Voss said. He says judges allow the system to continue.

"We've got a crisis on our hands," Voss said. "If the people don't put a stop to it, there will be no semblance of an independent judiciary."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: