Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan faces changes on November ballot

Posted October 11, 2012 at 11:15 am

On Nov. 6, Missouri voters will have the option to amend the way Missouri judges are selected.

Missouri Constitutional Amendment 3 is the culmination of a multi-year effort by a St. Louis County lawmaker to increase the accountability of the governor on appointees in the judicial nominating commission.

The Missouri Non- Partisan Court Plan has been in place for more than 70 years as a way to eliminate partisanship in the selection of judges in Missouri. The intent of the plan is to have judges selected based on merit instead of political affiliation.

The plan is in charge of selecting judges to the Supreme Court and Appeals Court. It initially applied to courts in St. Louis City and Jackson City. Presently, Greene, St. Louis, Clay and Platte Counties have also adopted similar variations of the plan.

The current system removes appellate level judges from having to seek election in partisan elections. For state appeals judges, they are selected from a panel of nominees compiled of three governor appointees, three lawyers selected by the Missouri Bar Association and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

“The original Constitution had the proper checks, and currently there is no check on the judicial branch of government as far as how we choose judges to the highest court,” said Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County. “The Missouri Plan is currently controlled by one special interest group: the trail attorneys.”

Lembke sponsored the amendment when it was before the General Assembly.

The amendment eliminates the Chief Justice from the panel and allows the governor four appointees to the commission instead of three, which would make his appointees the majority.

Lembke said the “modest” change would allow the people of Missouri to hold the governor accountable for the people the governor puts on that commission. Lembke said this will restore a check between the executive branch of government and the judicial branch.

Lynn Whaley Vogel, the president of the Missouri Bar, said the governor would essentially control the court through power of all the controlling votes in the commission.

“Before you change the constitution, you should be able to have a really good and valid reason, and be able to show the citizens that it doesn’t work,” Vogel said. “And nobody that proposed this amendment has demonstrated that the current court plan doesn’t work.”

Vogel said the proposed amendment directly injects partisan politics into a system that has been as free from politics as possible for the past seventy years.

In August, a group of former state Supreme Court judges spoke out against the ballot measure.

Retired Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price said supporters of the amendment are attempting to “concentrate power” in the executive branch.

“They want to be able to buy judicial appointments like they try and buy everything else in Jefferson City,” Price said during a conference call in August.

The Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Committee, which is comprised of a coalition of retired judges, business leaders and community leaders, also opposes the amendment. The committee was unable to be reached for comment.

The amendment would also affect term limits of commission members. Currently the term limits are two years for the Chief Justice on the commission and six year, staggered terms for all other members. The amendment would change the terms to four years for both non-voting members and governor appointees.

The plan also removes the requirement that governor appointees be non-lawyers creating the potential for the panel to be entirely comprised of lawyers.

The Missouri School Boards’ Association is also an opponent of Amendment 3, and formally joined the MFICC coalition on Sept. 14.

“One of our main points on Amendment 3 would be that our current system of electing judges in Missouri is not broken,” said Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri Board Association. He said he does not see a need to change a plan that is working well.

Ghan also said the MSBA is concerned with this issue because school boards find themselves in court quite a bit, sometimes with statewide implications, and school boards find it very important for the entire judicial system to be as non-partisan and as objective as possible. He said the current court plan accomplishes this as it is.