The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 10, 2012

Our View: Keep politics out of court plan

The Joplin Globe

— Thanks to the influence of Thomas Pendergast’s political machine in several judicial elections, an upset citizenry put Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan on the 1940 ballot by initiative petition and the system was adopted by voters.

Under the plan, which attempts to keep politics out of the selection process, candidates for court vacancies are interviewed and reviewed by a judicial non-partisan commission that sends a list of those best-qualified to the governor. It is composed of three lawyers elected by the lawyers of The Missouri Bar (the organization of all lawyers licensed in this state), three citizens and the chief justice, who serves as chair.

If within 60 days the governor does not select someone from the list, the non-partisan commission will make the choice. But voters have the opportunity to retain the judge for a full term or remove him at the next general election after a year’s service on the bench.

While the Missouri Plan has served as a model for more than 30 states that have adopted all or parts of the system, some think the plan puts too much power into the hands of members of The Missouri Bar.

Not every state has adopted the merit plan. Indeed, some states continue to have direct elections of judges, and others permit their governors to make judicial appointments with the approval of state senates. Perhaps the Missouri Plan can be altered to reduce lawyer influence by reducing the number of Missouri Bar members serving on the non-partisan commission to two or by increasing the number of citizens from three to four.  

We’re concerned that a bill listing Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, Rep. Charles Davis, R-Webb City, and Rep. Bill Lant, R-Joplin, as co-sponsors will, in effect, place more political maneuverings — rather than less — into the judicial system. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would scrap the Missouri Plan as we know it. The proposal creates a new system of choosing judicial replacements. Bill language hasn’t been solidified yet, so provisions could change. In a nutshell, leaders of the Senate and House would get to add people to the appointment committee that selects a pool of replacements. That sets up scenarios for conflict of interest.

Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan has served Missourians well for more than 70 years in keeping politics at arm’s length from the judicial selection process. Let’s not scrap the plan.