Putting Politics on the Bench; Judicial Appointments; A Proposed Change to the Missouri Plan Would Give the Governor Too Much Power

Article excerpt

More than 70 years ago, Missourians voted to select our Supreme Court and appeals court judges and, over time, the trial court judges in the metropolitan areas by a unique system. Known nationally as the Missouri Plan, variations of this system have been adopted by 34 states. That's right. We are famous for the Missouri Plan. And it works well. We have not had scandals associated with our judges, unlike other branches of government.

History explains why we adopted this system. After "Boss" Tom Pendergast in Kansas City tried to "buy" an election for a Missouri Supreme Court judgeship, community leaders agreed that there had to be a better way to select judges. We needed competent, qualified people as judges. To achieve this goal, they proposed a plan, and it was approved by a statewide vote of the people. The plan set up judicial nominating commissions to interview applicants and pick three of them as judicial nominees. The governor then would select the new judge from one of those three nominees.

For the Supreme Court and appeals courts, the commission is composed of seven members. One is a Missouri Supreme Court judge, three are non-lawyers appointed by the governor and three are lawyers elected by members of the Missouri Bar. One non-lawyer and one lawyer must come from each of Missouri's three judicial districts: Eastern, Western and Southern. Most important, the non- lawyer members have staggered appointments of six years. When a new governor is elected, the non-lawyers on the commission will be people appointed by the last governor, or even the governor before that one. They are not the current governor's choices, and they may not even be from the same party.

A proposed change to the Missouri Plan will be on the ballot in November. The change seems small, but it is not. The proposal would eliminate the vote of the Missouri Supreme Court judge. The three elected lawyers would remain, but now there would be four members appointed by the governor, and the constitutional requirement that they be non-lawyers would be removed. All four of them could be lawyers. It also changes the length and term of each member's appointment. …