The failure of the state senate to approve a proposal that could add more political influence to selection of high court judges apparently leaves the field open to a petition campaign. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Jim Lembke of St. Louis, has left no doubt one will be started.
But opposing Senator Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit thinks any campaign to change Missouri’s non-partisan court plan will cost somebody—or a lot of somebodies–a lot of money. In the end, though, he says proponents will lose. He says one reason it will fail is because of "status quo lag," which he says
affects the tendency of people who do not understand an issue to vote know. "There’s a three-to-five percent lag on that," he says.
Opponents of the plan say it would inject partisanship into the state’s present non-partisan court plan. That’s okay with Lembke. "It’s all political. ‘There’s not anything that we do in this building that’s not political," he says, "And that’s just the nature of the beast."
Bartle, like Lembke a a conservative Republican, says conservative Republican interests are likely to lead the effort. But he thinks voters statewide will reject the proposal if it gets to the ballot. He bases his outlook on the vote last year in Greene County in which voters decided to adopt the non-partisan court plan instead of sticking with the system of election of judges. He tells the Senate, "The fact that a very conservative area of our state…voted to join the Missouri plan,voted to reject a plan by which the people would directly elect their judges and instead joined the Missouri non-partisan court plan…is a strong indication that ultimately people will vote in favor of keeping the Missouri plan."
Lembke claims there is "definite buyer’s remorse" in Greene County. He claims the pro-Missouri Plan side "manipulated" information.
The Missouri Non-partisan Court plan was adopted by voters in 1940 after a petition campaign put the issue on the ballot. Backers of the plan said it would keep the court system from being dominated by political bosses such as Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, who was regarded for many years as the most powerful political figure in Missouri history.
The plan was written into the new state constitution of 1945. It operates this way:
When a vacancy occurs on one of the three state appeals courts, a special non-partisan commission is appointed. Three members are members of the Missouri Bar, one from each of the appellate districts of the state. Three are private citizens appointed by the Governor, one from each of the appellate divisions. The Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court is the chairman of the commission, which takes applications from lawyers throughout Missouri. The commission selects three nominees whose names are forwarded to the Governor. The Governor picks the new judge.
A localized version of the state plan is used in Clay, Greene, Platte, St.Louis, and Jackson Counties as well as St. Louis city.
Although the system eliminates partisan political campaigning for high judicial offices statewide or in metropolitan counties, voters still have a place in it. Once a judge has served in office, he or she must go before voters for retention. No political opponents run against the judge. Voters are asked whether to retain the judge with a straight "yes" or "no" ballot. No political party designations are on the judicial ballot.
The Lembke proposal would require the commission to submit four names, not three, to the Governor who could veto the list within sixty days. If that were to happen, the commission would have to submit a second list of nominees from which the Governor must select a judge within 34 days. If the Governor refuses to pick a candidate from either list, the commission can make the appointment.
Lembke’s bill changed the make up of the nominating commission so that it had eight non-lawyer citizens and three attorneys. The Chief Justice would no longer be part of the process. The Senate would be given confirmation power over the eight appointees by the Governor.
The bill also required the Judicial Commission to hold its meetings in compliance with the Missouri Open Records Law. The names of applicants would be made public. They are not known under present law until the three finalists are presented to the Governor.
Lembke predicts a proposed change put before voters by the petition process would require Senate confirmation of nominated judges.
Debate on Lembke’s bill consumed all of the Wednesday session of the Senate. One amendment was adopted but opponents dominated the last half of the debate and never let Lembke bring his bill to a vote.
A segment of the debate between Sens.Jim Lembke and Matt Bartle is included with this story.