Better Courts for Missouri

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Better Courts for Missouri is an American nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization dedicated to introducing "openness and accountability" to the Missouri Plan for selecting judges.[1]


Contents

Current Missouri Plan

In the event of a vacancy on one of the courts that falls under the Missouri Plan -- the Supreme Court, appellate courts, or the circuit courts in St. Louis and Kansas City -- a judicial Commission requests applications, screens and interviews applicants, and then sends the Governor a list of three nominees from which the Governor has sixty days to select the judge to fill the vacancy. The Commission that nominates judges to Missouri's Supreme Court and Appellate Courts is the Appellate Judicial Commission.[2] Currently the Appellate Judicial Commission consists of three lawyers elected by the Missouri Bar, three laypersons appointed by current and past governors, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If the Governor does not choose one of the people nominated by the Commission, then the Commission appoints one of the nominees.

Better Courts for Missouri Objectives

Better Courts for Missouri believes that the Missouri plan, the process by which Missouri's judges are appointed, has been dominated by a "good ol boy network" of trial lawyers.[3] Specifically, the organization has pointed to the fact that three of the Commissioners that nominate judges to Missouri's highest courts are members of an elite trial lawyers association.[4] They believe this flaw, combined with the level of secrecy surrounding the process, has allowed the commission that nominates judges to become too partisan and political.[5] [6]

Specific Criticisms of the Missouri Plan

Excessive Influence of Elite Trial Attorneys

Better Courts for Missouri has argued that flaws in the current plan give elite trial lawyers too much control over judicial selection. According to the organization's executive director, "they are a small, insular group who have their interests. They have a lot to add to the process, but we don't think they should dominate the process - (and they) are in no way accountable to Missourians." [7]

Disenfranchisement of African Americans

Former Missouri State legislator and lawyer, Elbert Walton, has focused on the plan's effect on African Americans. "It is unfair that lawyers elect judges . . . It disenfranchises people and it especially disenfranchises black people." [8] At a press conference in February, 2008, Walton accused Missouri Bar President Charlie Harris of ignoring the Missouri Plan's effect on black people. Walton pointed to the fact that there had never been an African American elected to one of the Missouri Bar's three slots on the Appellate Judicial Commission, and suggested that Mr. Harris "ought to be ashamed of himself" for supporting such a plan.[9]

Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee has complained of his own state's version of the Missouri Plan for similar reasons.[10]

Dominated by Politics

The Editors at the Wall Street Journal wrote that, "If the recent slugfests have proven anything, it's that Missouri's courts are every bit as hung up in politics as they are in other states. The difference is that in Missouri the process happens behind closed doors." [11]

In Tennessee, Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen made similar complaints and made comments echoing those made by Better Courts for Missouri. According to Bredesen, "I think [the nominating commissioners] have been vastly too political in their selection process. And what they are supposed to do is give you the best candidates in the ideal world." [12]

Improving the Missouri Plan

Changes supported by Better Courts for Missouri include:

  • Reducing the influence of the organized bar and trial attorneys over judicial selection
  • Adding access to process by the press and the public
  • Increasing the nominees submitted to the governor from three to five
  • Allowing the governor to veto the panel of judicial nominees submitted to him[3]
  • Senate confirmation of members of the Appellate Judicial Commission. [13]

Legislative Track

Better Courts for Missouri has supported three House Joint Resolutions that would change the composition of the Appellate Judicial Commission, and make the judicial selection process "more open and accountable": HJR 49, HJR 51, and HJR 66.[1]

House Joint Resolution 49 was filed by Representative Stanley Cox, an attorney from Sedalia, Missouri. Cox's bill would remove the Chief Justice from the nominating commission, replace her with a lay-person appointed by the governor, and add requirements that the Commission make information public. [14]

Initiative Petition

Better Courts for Missouri has expressed support for an initiative petition that, if approved, would give voters the option of voting in the next election to modernize the Missouri Plan. The initiative petition would introduce several of the above-mentioned changes, but would go further by completely eliminating the role of the Missouri Bar in the judicial nomination process.

Grassroots Campaign

Better Courts for Missouri has posted an online petition reform supporters can sign the petition by going to the Better Courts for Missouri website.[1]

Conflict with Missouri Bar

Since its inception, the Missouri Bar and Better Courts have been critical of one another. Better Courts first argued that members of the Bar should ask for a refund of dues if they objected to the Missouri Bar's use of those dues to campaign against reform of the Missouri Plan. [15] The Missouri Bar responded by arguing that Better Courts was nothing but a "fringe group," that would "politicize Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan." [16] Better Courts for Missouri responded by releasing letters of support by prominent legal scholars. [17] In a recent debate between William Placke and Woody Cozad, hosted by the Federalist Society, William Placke said, "To argue that this system is not based on partisan politics is a stretch of the truth and an insult to intelligence." [18]

Criticism

Former Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson has said, "The only thing that's transparent about this so-called coalition, and others like it, is their plan to destroy Missouri's courts." [19]

The group Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts has put out ads in opposition to Better Courts for Missouri, and has been increasingly critical of their policies.,[20]

External Links

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 http://www.newmoplan.com
  2. "American Judicature Society's Judicial Selection in the States website" Accessed 2008-14-03.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Walsh, Steve. "New Group Launches Renewed Attack on Missouri Plan," Missourinet. 2008-02-20. Accessed 2008-02
  4. [http://www.courts.mo.gov/page.asp?id=158 Supreme Court website, membership of the Appellate Judicial Commission
  5. Watson, Bob. "Group files petition to change court system" Jefferson City News Tribune. 2008-21-02. Accessed 2008-14-03.
  6. http://www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/stories/2008/01/28/daily28.html "Missouri group wants to change judge-selection process."] Kansas City Business Journal. 2008-30-01. Accessed 2008-14-03.
  7. Watson, Bob. Jefferson City News Tribune. "Opponents of judicial selection process form new group" Accessed 2008-14-03.
  8. Noble, Jason. KC Star"Another amendment, another hearing, more of the same debate on the judicial selection process 2008-26-02. Accessed 2008-14-03.
  9. Scott Lauck, Daily Record, St. Louis attorney says blacks left out of judicial selection
  10. Justice at Stake, Bredesen complains about Missouri Plan
  11. Wall Street Journal Missouri Compromised 2007-22-12. Accessed 2008-14-03
  12. Andy Sher. Chatanooga Times Free Press"Bredesen Wants Nominating Commission to Operate in Open 2008-14-01.
  13. Watson, Bob. "Group files petition to change court system" Jefferson City News Tribune. 2008-21-02. Accessed 200814-03.
  14. House Joint Resolution 49
  15. Missouri Bar Watch. Missouri Bar Dues Refund
  16. Missouri Bar. Esq. "And Now, The Rest of the Story – What Missouri Lawyers Should Know about a Recent Daily Record Article about “Better Courts for Missouri.”
  17. Missouri Political News Service
  18. Wiese, Kelly. Daily Record "Proposed changes to Missouri Plan gather steam at Capitol." 2008-12-03.
  19. "Missouri group wants to change judge-selection process." Kansas City Business Journal. 2008-30-01. Accessed 2008-14-03.
  20. Protecting Missourians’ Rights to Fair and Impartial Courts ProtectJustice.Org July 26, 2007
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