A couple of suggested improvements to the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan will soon be implemented, but that hasn’t stopped critics of the plan from moving forward with their proposed changes.
The changes have been outlined by State Supreme Court Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith during the State of the Judiciary address given to a joint session of the General Assembly. In that speech Stith gave no doubt that she supports the Missouri Plan for choosing appellate judges, calling it "This renowned method of judicial selection".
Stith insisted the Missouri Plan has worked well in attracting quality judges since its adoption in 1940. Stith called it, "a neutral, even-handed process that blends the best features of merit screening, executive branch appointment and voter participation in judicial selection while preserving the public’s confidence in fair and impartial courts."
Not everyone at the Capitol thinks so. Stith told lawmakers she had heard the complaints and that the State Supreme Court would act to address the biggest complaints. Stith says the Court will soon begin requiring the Appellate Judicial Commission to announce the time, date and location of its meetings and to provide demographic information about the applicant pool prior to the meetings. Applications of the finalists will be released to the public.
The State Supreme Court also plans to make more information about judges up for retention available to the public. Judicial performance committees will be formed to evaluate appellate judges and the few circuit judges which are part of the Missouri Plan. The committees will be composed of an equal number of lawyers and lay persons.
House Speaker Rod Jetton (R-Marble Hill) is pleased with what he hears. Jetton says Stith clearly has heard the complaints from lawmakers and has moved to address them. Jetton says he doesn’t believe anyone at the Capitol wants Missouri to return to electing judges. He does say, though, that many Republicans have been dissatisfied with the current process.
Jetton says he doesn’t believe the Supreme Court has moved enough to derail resolutions seeking to change the plan, "I still think there will be discussion and debate on the resolutions."
The Special Committee on General Laws is considering two resolutions that would go to a vote of the people if approved by the legislature. HJR52 sponsored by Rep. Jim Lembke (R-St. Louis) would make the most drastic change. It would scrap the nonpartisan Appellate Judicial Commission and replace it with a bi-partisan judicial merit selection commission. Lembke argues that there is no way to make the process truly nonpartisan and that a bi-partisan commission would serve the state better. The other, HJR49 sponsored by Rep. Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia), would make less drastic changes. It would increase the number of citizens appointed by the governor to the commission.