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Missouri Bar Association denounces judicial selection bill

Most justices are appointed through the Missouri Plan.

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Missouri Bar Association President-elect Harold 'Skip' Walther discusses the Missouri non-partisan courts plan Monday at the Columbia Public Library. The League of Women Voters sponsored the forum.

Patrick Fallon/Senior Staff Photographer

April 28, 2009

Controversy over the selection of state Supreme Court justices has reached the Missouri legislature in the form of a bill that would modify the non-partisan court plan that has helped the state to build a politically independent judiciary since its adoption in the mid-20th century.

Most Missouri judges are appointed through the non-partisan court plan, known across the U.S. as the Missouri Plan.

When a judicial vacancy arises, Missouri's Appellate Judicial Commission -- which consists of three members of the Missouri Bar Association, three Missouri citizens and the chief justice -- reviews all applications and recommends three candidates to be interviewed by the governor, who must choose the new judge from this group.

This non-partisan court plan has long been used in the state's metropolitan areas.

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, has proposed a joint resolution to change the judicial selection process for Missouri judges. If Missouri voters approve the resolution, membership for the commission would expand to include an additional citizen, an increased number of candidates nominated for the governor's consideration and the governor would have veto power of the commission's initial recommendations. It would also increase public access to the judicial appointment process.

On Thursday, a Senate committee passed the measure, placing it on an informal calendar for possible debate before the full chamber. The bill passed the House 85-72 on April 6, with mostly Democrats against the measure and mostly Republicans in support.

Better Courts for Missouri, an organization that supports the measure, issued a release Thursday praising the Senate committee's decision.

"While the members of the elite legal establishment think the system is fine, this is because it serves them financially while leaving average citizens out in the cold," Better Courts for Missouri Executive Director James Harris said in the release. "This measure will give more power to the people by bringing the judicial selection process into the open and ending the back-room deals that are part of the system's current model of Tom Pendergast-like wheeling and dealing."

But Cox's resolution faces opposition from several organizations, including the Missouri Bar Association. The Bar instead advocates maintaining Missouri's non-partisan appointment process.

This plan, adopted first by Missouri in 1940, removes political influence from the selection process and is instead driven by merit-based selection. It has been adopted by 33 other states and the District of Columbia.

"The Missouri Plan is alive and well," said Tom Burke, a St. Louis attorney and outgoing president of the Missouri Bar Association, in a statement released earlier this month. "It has kept partisan politics out of the judicial selection process and we believe strongly that it should not be changed in any way."

President-elect of the Missouri Bar Harold "Skip" Walther echoed these sentiments at a public forum held Monday night.

The forum, organized by the League of Women Voters, was entitled "The Non-Partisan Court Plan: Missouri's Contribution to the Art of Governing."

"This bill was designed to do one thing and that is to increase the role of politics in the way we choose our judges," Walther said.

Walther said the resolution was hurriedly and sloppily drafted, probably in response to the ideological controversy surrounding the appointment of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Patricia Breckenridge in 2007.

"What we are most concerned about is the injection of politics into the system," Walther said. "From my standpoint, this issue involves the significant question of whether we want to have a separation of powers in this state."

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