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Old 08-08-2007, 11:30 AM  
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Conservative lawmakers seek to challenge Missouri Nonpartisan court plan

Posted on Tue, Aug. 07, 2007

Conservative lawmakers seek to challenge Missouri court plan

The Kansas City Star

Conservative Republican lawmakers predict they will have the votes next year to modify, or completely revamp, Missouri’s nonpartisan court plan, which has changed little since its 1940 adoption.

Their confidence is fueled by the latest panel of three judges sent to Gov. Matt Blunt for a vacant state Supreme Court seat. No member of that panel, some conservatives contend, comports with Blunt’s conservative judicial philosophy.

It’s an “up your nose, in your face” slate, charged Sen. Delbert Scott, a Lowry City Republican.

“Game on,” said Rep. Jim Lembke, a St. Louis Republican who has pushed court plan changes before.

Scott and others have a beef with the process used to pick finalists, calling it secretive and dominated by legal interests.

But defenders of the system counter that the plan preserves the judiciary’s independence and protects it against partisan warfare. Thirty states have copied parts of Missouri’s plan.

“It doesn’t appear to be broken to us, and it doesn’t need fixing,” said Ron Baird, Missouri Bar president.

Under the nonpartisan plan, a seven-member Appellate Judicial Commission screens candidates and submits a slate of three names to the governor, who has 60 days to make a pick. The goal of the plan is to see that judges are picked on merit, not political affiliation.

In contrast, the federal system allows the president to pick a candidate for court vacancies with the Senate acting as a check. Meanwhile, some states, such as Illinois, use costly elections complete with donations from special interests and TV ads.

Last week the commission submitted the names of three state appellate judges — Patricia Breckenridge, Ronald Holliger and Nannette Baker.

Critics say the process is more political than defenders acknowledge. Past governors have made it clear whom they would like to see on panels, and in some cases those wishes have been fulfilled.

At least three conservative lawmakers are promising to introduce reform bills next session, but they have not decided what they will propose. This year, two bills dealt with the nonpartisan plan. One would have adopted a system similar to the federal system. Another would have tinkered with the panel makeup.

Because a reform measure would alter the state constitution, a vote of the people would be required if the measure passed the House and Senate.

The time for change “is really ripe,” Scott said.

Others disagree.

“When the people of Missouri understand that they’re trying to get rid of the independence of the judiciary, I don’t think it will work,” said Rep. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat.

A separate reform effort could be launched through an initiative petition to put a plan before voters next year. No sponsor has stepped up, but the Adam Smith Foundation, which has paid for several billboards throughout the state criticizing “activist judges,” has not ruled it out.

The issue could be prominent in the 2008 governor’s race. Blunt’s administration has not commented on the nominees, but it has been critical of the selection process in subtle ways. Several releases the office issued have pointed out that Blunt’s influence on the seven-member commission is minimal because he has appointed only one member. Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, named two who still serve.

Blunt’s office recently criticized the commission for secrecy and failing to turn over documents that would give a more complete picture of the Supreme Court candidates.

The commission fired back Tuesday in an open letter to Missourians. The letter defended the process and pointed out that Supreme Court rules require confidentiality until the final slate is picked.

Critics of the Appellate Commission say the Missouri Bar has too much influence. Attorneys vote in the three appellate districts to fill three of the seven seats. The chief judge of the state Supreme Court rounds out the panel.

Defenders of the nonpartisan plan say the process is private to encourage more applicants.

“The complaints of people not happy with Missouri Plan really have nothing at all to do with Missouri Plan,” said David Achtenberg, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor. “They disagree on a policy basis with some of the decisions of the Missouri Supreme Court.”

To see the commission’s letter, go to www.courts.mo.gov/page.asp?id=6543.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send e-mail to skraske@kcstar.com.

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