Gavel Grab

Elections, Instead of Merit Selection, Sought for Top Judges in Missouri

Missouri’s nationally recognized merit selection system for selecting top judges could face still another attack.

Approval by the secretary of state’s office for two similar constitutional amendments this week means supporters can begin working to seek enough signatures to bring the issue before voters in November 2014, according to the Associated Press. The proposals seek to replace merit selection with popular election of judges, and they would expand the size of the state Supreme Court from seven to nine justices.

The “Missouri Plan” for selecting  judges has provided a model for many other states. Critics of the plan, from both inside and outside the state, have launched attacks on it for more than a decade. Read more

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Missouri in Spotlight for Gun Bill That Would Nullify Federal Firearms Law

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed last month a bill making it a crime for federal agents to enforce federal gun laws in the state, but the legislature is likely to override the veto next month, the New York Times reported. Nixon is a Democrat. Republicans control the legislature.

Earlier this year, Justice at Stake raised concerns about legislation under consideration in some states to prosecute officials, including judges, who enforce federal firearms laws (see Gavel Grab).

“It would be wrong to lock up judges for applying the rule of law, and legislation advancing in some states proposes to permit exactly that,” said JAS Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton in a statement.

“Even if you disagree strongly with federal gun restrictions, slapping handcuffs on judges who do their job is dangerous overreach. Those who oppose federal gun laws can lobby to change them before Congress. Undermining the judiciary is not the answer.” Read more

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Bringing Diversity to the Bench: A Chief Justice’s Personal View

This past July, Mary Rhodes Russell began her two-year term as Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.  In an interview with the Missouri Times, Justice Russell discusses interpretation of laws, public education on court issues and her career as a judge.  When asked about her transition from lawyer to judge, she notes the unlikelihood of her professional trajectory from her own perspective.

“…[I]t simply wasn’t dreamable for a girl to be a judge… I didn’t know much about how that process worked and didn’t think a girl from Hannibal could compete with big name lawyers from St. Louis. But of course I was interested and I tried and the rest, I guess, is history.

When asked if being a woman brings a different perspective to the court, Justice Russell addresses the reality of different perspectives. “Everybody walks in different shoes,” she says. And she believes diversity strengthens our courts overall:  “I think it’s important for the courts to look like the people they represent. I think that if the courts don’t have diversity we lose our strength.”

Justice at Stake, in coordination with its partners, is engaged in a five-year multi-state effort to promote diversity on the state bench by building the pipeline of people of color, women, and members of the LGBT community who are potential judges, and encouraging transparency and inclusion in judicial selection. Justice at Stake’s Deputy Director of Federal Affairs & Diversity Initiatives, Liz Fujii spoke about Justice Russell’s interview and work being done to further promote a more diverse bench, in a video here.

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Justice at Stake Featured in Daily Judicial Election Coverage

In the last days before Nov. 6, reports by Justice at Stake and its partner groups on rising judicial election spending are providing a valuable resource for daily news media reporting and commentary.

A Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer editorial lit into spending by outside groups in a contest for the North Carolina Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab for background).

“The deep-pockets donors haven’t bought anything; they’ve gambled. Our hope and expectation is that, at some point or points, the winner of this race will prove to be a bitter disappointment to those who wagered most heavily on his campaign,” the editorial said.

The editorial cited a spending analysis last week by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. The analysis showed judicial election spending so far this year exceeding the 2010 total, and outside spending in the North Carolina court race exceeding that of candidates.

A St. Louis (Mo.) Post-Dispatch article, meanwhile, focused on controversy over a ballot item that would change the way judges are selected under a merit-based system in Missouri (see Gavel Grab for more.) Read more

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Opponents Air TV Ad Urging ‘No’ Vote on Missouri Ballot Item

Opponents of a Nov. 6 ballot measure to change the way top judges are chosen in Missouri have begun airing a TV ad urging, “Keep politics out of Missouri’s courtrooms.”

The Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Committee launched the ad, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article.

The proposed amendment would change the way judges are appointed, giving the governor a greater hand in the judicial selection commissions and more power over judicial appointments in general.

In the TV ad, a narrator says that Missouri’s existing judicial selection plan, which combines appointments with retention (yes-or-no) elections, has served as a national model and has preserved fair and impartial courts.

However, “special interests want to change Missouri’s constitution and tip our scales of justice,” the narrator says. “They’re pushing Amendment 3 because they don’t like nonpartisan courts they can’t control.” Read more

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Editorial: Amendment 3 Would Damage, Politicize Missouri Courts

Since 1940, Missourians have benefited from what is known as the Missouri Plan for selecting judges, but Amendment 3 could unnecessarily change the selection process for the worse, a Joplin Globe editorial argues.

If voters pass Amendment 3 on November 6, the selection process for appointing Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges would be drastically altered, the editorial says.

It would modify the makeup of the Appellate Judicial Commission by eliminating the chief justice as a member, and allowing the governor to appoint four members who could be lawyers. The commission would also present four nominees instead of three to the governor.

Most of the efforts to change the Missouri Plan have largely been funded through out-of-state groups, the editorial says. Attempts have been made to change the selection plan since 2002. Read more

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Groups Express Opposing Views on Missouri Amendment 3

The opposing views of two groups on Missouri Amendment 3 are highlighted in a Columbia Daily Tribune article.

James Harris is the executive director of Better Courts for Missouri, the group that until recently focused its energies on promoting Amendment 3. Though the group recently announced it will no longer promote the Amendment, Harris says the group is “not going away until meaningful reform is achieved.”

Harris says that under the current system, politics and money have taken over the judicial selection process and there is no way to hold the selection commission responsible. Giving the governor the majority of appointees on the selection panel grants him or her the ability to hand-pick qualified judges and creates a way for the people to hold the governor accountable, Harris argues.

“The governor will have to face re-election and stand by those elections,” Harris says.  Read more

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Editorial: Vote ‘Yes’ in Kansas and Missouri Retention Elections

A Kansas City Star editorial urged voters  to “retain well-qualified [statewide and local] judges” in Kansas and Missouri on November 6th.

As part of Missouri’s retention election, its bar association will post online judicial performance evaluations.  The evaluations survey lawyers and jurors who are knowledgeable of a judge’s skills, conduct and decisions.

Once the evaluations are collected, a committee then recommends which judges should be up for a retention election. Those recommendations are posted in print and online.

In contrast to Missouri, budget cuts have prevented Kansas from posting evaluations online. The Star explained that “[t]he Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance unfortunately has not received funding for two years.”

The Kansas City Star in response, has urged funding for the Commission to resume, or for the state of Kansas to refund those surveys.

The Star continued by mentioning judges who scored high on evaluations and who voters should retain.

Some examples of highly rated judges in Missouri include, Supreme Court Judge George W. Draper III; western district Court of Appeals Judges Thomas H. Newton, Gary D. Witt and Cynthia L. Martin; and circuit court judges in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties.

Despite the limited information on judicial performances available to Kansas voters, the Star recommended Supreme Court Justice Nancy L. Moritz, along with court of appeals, district courts and magistrate judges to be retained. Those judges also scored well on their evaluations.

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Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan: “Let it be”

Missouri voters “should reject Amendment 3 and let the Nonpartisan Court Plan be,” asserted Mike Dandino, retired chief legal adviser for the Missouri Office of Public Counsel, in a St. Charles County Suburban Journal op-ed.

Amendment 3 would “magnify the role of big money” in judicial elections, give the governor control over the commission by giving him the ability to appoint the majority of its members and remove the assured role of the general public in the selection process, says Dandino. Most importantly, Amendment 3 would disrupt the “well-balanced process” of judicial selection.

“Constitutional Amendment 3 would reintroduce party politics and patronage into the judicial selection process that brought integrity and independence to the courts,” Dandino states. Read more

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Governor, Challenger Oppose Missouri Amendment 3

Current Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and his challenger, Dave Spence, have both come out in opposition of the proposed Missouri Amendment 3, according to an Associated Press article.

The proposed amendment would change the way judges are appointed, giving the governor a greater hand in the judicial selection commissions and  more power over judicial appointments in general. Both Nixon, a Democrat, and Spence, a Republican, have refused to back the measure. They have opted instead to keep the current system for appointing judges, known as the Missouri Plan.

“I think it puts too much power in the governor,” Spence said of the plan proposed under Amendment 3. “The Missouri Plan really was a model for other states — I’m fine with just leaving it as is.”

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