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What do trial lawyers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Committee for Economic Development, and local Chambers of Commerce all agree on? We agree that we should maintain the Missouri Plan for nonpartisan, merit-based selection of judges and keep politics and special interests out of Missouri courtrooms.

For years, the Missouri Plan has been under attack. Again. And Again. And again.

Why all the attacks? If you look closely, you won't find anyone challenging the quality of judges selected. I've not seen a single attack on the Missouri Plan that names even one judge that lacked the qualifications, skills, demeanor, or temperament to serve as a trial, appellate, or Supreme Court judge.

No, the Missouri Plan is not attacked for picking "bad" judges. The Missouri Plan is attacked for not being partisan enough. For example, Carrie Severino attacked the plan because the nominating commission "jam governors with nominees they would never choose themselves." This criticism may or may not be true depending on a number of factors including (1) the governor; (2) the judicial applicants; and (3) the appellate judicial commission members. But is Severino's critique the way we should judge whether or not we have quality judges in Missouri? Aren't we better off with qualified judges rather than politically expedient judges?

How The Missouri Plan Works

The Missouri Plan – a plan in which judges are selected for service based on non-partisan merit selection – was enacted after Missouri citizens voted to amend the constitution in the 1940s. The Missouri Plan is one for the people and by the people. The Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan was adopted because citizens were fed up with political cronyism and politics in the courthouse. Namely, notorious "Boss Tom" Pendergast, who ran the Democratic Party in Missouri during the 1920s and 1930s, also controlled the judiciary.

Rush Limbaugh's grandfather — "the original" Rush Limbaugh — successfully led the citizen's initiative petition drive to end partisan control of the judiciary in favor of merit selection of judges. Under the Missouri Plan, appellate judges and trial judges in metropolitan counties electing to participate in the Missouri Plan, judges are selected by a commission consisting of 3 attorneys elected by members of the Missouri Bar Association; 3 citizen members appointed by the governor (serving 6-year staggered terms); and a currently sitting judge. The panel selects from those submitting applications themselves or nominated by others for the vacant position. The process has worked essentially the same way for more than 50 years and led the country as more than 30 other states have adopted the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan in one form or another.

Partisan politics and campaign fundraising have no place in our judicial selection process. I make that statement both as head of Kansas City's largest regional business organization and as a longtime attorney.

Under the Missouri Court Plan, the selection process is more likely to produce qualified and competent judges, leading to a more stable, efficient and consistent judicial system, a system on which the business community and the general public rely.

– James A. Heeter, President and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce

Because of the Missouri Plan's more than 70 years of success, a broad coalition has formed in support of the Missouri Plan and to keep politics out of the courtroom. This coalition includes not only plaintiff trial lawyers (like me), but also defense lawyers, prosecutors, "biglaw" firms, small and solo practice attorneys, current and former Supreme Court judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors, and citizen groups including AARP Missouri, Committee for Economic Development and local Chambers of Commerce including the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

For the business community, the non-partisan court plan means stability and predictability in the judicial system – two important components for a positive, pro-business climate. It is a proven, nonpartisan system for selecting judges that is working in more than 35 states and leads to a quality judicial system.

The non-partisan court plan is intended to eliminate partisan politics and campaign fundraising from the judicial selection process. A merit-based selection process is more likely to produce competent and qualified judges, making our court system more stable, efficient, and consistent.

– Lara Vermillion, President of the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce

Proposed Changes to the Missouri Court Plan

Despite the Missouri Court Plan's long history of success, well-funded special interests exerted enough control to put changes undoing the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan on the ballot this fall. The proposed change undoes the Nonpartisan plan by placing complete control of the nominating commission to a single-term governor. Missouri Lawyers Weekly described the changes this way:

From the start of the debate, it was clear there were rifts – even among senators of the same party – as to whether the proposal was a good idea. Several senators raised concerns that [the] proposal allows a governor to appoint two people when taking office and two in the middle of his term.

Currently, the lay members serve six-year staggered terms, so only a two-term governor would be able to appoint all three [lay] commissioners, and then only toward the end of his second term.

"I don't want a one-term governor to be able to pack the commission," said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan Supported By Public

Missouri citizens have a history of supporting the Missouri Court Plan — beginning with the citizen initiative to create the plan in the 1940s. Since then, the Missouri Plan has been expanded – most recently in 2008 when Green County (Springfield area) voted to replace election of local trial judges with merit selection under the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan. Numerous editorials have been written in support of the Missouri Court Plan and against the proposed changes that would insert politics into the courtroom.

According to the web site Justice At Stake, 71% of Missourians were happy with the current judicial selection system in a 2007 survey. Even more, 73%, wanted judges to be independent of elected officials like the governor and state legislature. Only 1-in-50 respondents saw changing the way judges are selected as a top priority for state government.*

A survey by the conservative Federalist Society that same year found 68% of respondents had trust and confidence that the Missouri Supreme Court based decisions on the law rather than on political beliefs.

An apolitical, independent judiciary comprised of qualified judges is critical to upholding the rule of law and individual rights of Freedom and Liberty. Fairness. Justice. Liberty. Rule of Law. These are not partisan issues. These are not Democratic vs. Republican issues. There is enough politics in the legislative and executive branches, we should keep politics out of our courts. Cases should be decided on the fact and the law, not by partisan politics funded by special interest groups.

How You Can Help

Visit The Missouri Plan to find out more about the plan and how you can support the nonpartisan, merit selection of judges. You can request a speaker to talk with your civic group, church, or other organization about the Missouri Plan. You can volunteer to speak to various groups about the Missouri Plan. You can also support the Missouri plan on Facebook and Twitter.

[More on the Missouri Court Plan]

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(c) Copyright 2012 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

* Source: American Judicature Society.

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