JOPLIN, Mo. —
On Nov. 6, every voter in the state will be voting on ballot language that seeks to make a major change in the way judges are selected in this state.
For more than 70 years, Missourians have selected their Supreme Court and appellate judges through a process now known as “The Missouri Plan.”
As you probably know, this system, approved by voters statewide when it was adopted, provides that whenever a vacancy occurs for a judge at that level, a judicial nominating commission interviews interested applicants and picks three of them as judicial nominees. The governor then selects the new judge from one of those three nominees.
This plan has been so successful that more than 30 other states have adopted this process, or a similar process, to name their judges. In addition, the three largest metropolitan areas of the state have adopted this plan for their trial-level judges. It’s a system that works. It provides checks and balances that limit any group of politicians from handpicking judges and instead provides a method where judges in our state are selected based on their credentials. Professional skills are more important than political cronyism.
Once appointed, these judges are regularly evaluated by lawyers and members of the public who serve as jurors, and the ratings they receive are publicized by The Missouri Bar so that voters, who are asked whether they should be retained, can focus on their skills and work, not on the money they may be spending to campaign for the office.
Indeed, the Supreme Court a few years ago opened up the selection process further, now making the names of the applicants for these positions a public record and offering public interviews as part of the selection process. Members of the public are always welcome to send letters to the nominating commission or to the governor to express their opinion about a candidate.
What is especially important for the public to understand is that members of the selection commission are lawyers and nonlawyers, from different parts of the state, and have staggered terms such that they are not necessarily of the same political party as the governor. This keeps the process apolitical, and as a result Missouri has been blessed with years of scandal-free judiciary.
A proposed ballot change would eliminate part of the process set out above. While the lawyers on the commission would remain, there would now be four members appointed by the governor and they will not be required to be nonlawyers. The term they serve will be changed; in short, within two years of being elected governor, he or she would have a majority of the seven votes on this commission.
This is not a good idea. The repercussions would be significant. You may see negative advertising and, possibly, multimillion dollar judicial campaigns. Of greater concern to me, personally, is whether judges who must raise money to pay for these campaigns will need to take large contributions to make this happen. Would that mean only the large firms, who would have access to more discretionary funds than a small firm, like The Maneke Law Group, find themselves making these large contributions? And if they did, what would that do to the perception of impartiality a judge has when someone from a small firm goes up against a member of one of these large firms that has contributed significant funds to his or her campaign? How could a judge not help but feel somewhat indebted to those who had helped him or her win a heated campaign?
Negative campaigning has significantly affected the way many in the public feel about the entire political process. So far, this taint has not reached our court system. But I fear that if this proposal passes, the days of faith in our judicial system will fade.
Jean Maneke, of Kansas City, is the attorney for Missouri Press Association members and a frequent commentator on open-government issues. She is with The Maneke Law Group.