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Nixon hampered in laying off judges, hammered over appointment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2009 - When it comes to judges, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has run into a few snags.

A Cole County judge has issued an injunction barring Nixon and his administration from terminating three administrative law judges. The order, signed and filed Thursday, means that the judges -- who handle cases within the state's workers compensation program -- will remain on the job at least for now.

The job cuts, which took effect July 1, have drawn some attention because all were appointees of Nixon's predecessor, Republican Matt Blunt.

The implication has been that politics may have been involved in the job cuts, especially since one of the law judges is Henry Herschel, Blunt's former chief counsel and one of the figures in the e-mail controversy that embroiled Blunt and Nixon last year.

Nixon's staff says the cuts were prompted by the state's budget crunch. All told, Nixon's administration cut five of the state's 40 administrative law posts in the 2010 budget that went into effect July 1.

But three of the judges filed suit last month, stating that administrative law judges can't be removed by layoffs under the state's statutes. (Of the other two posts eliminated, one person retired and the other opted not to sue.)

John D. Comerford, the lawyer representing the suing juges, said they are pleased with the judge's action. A hearing is set for July 22.

The second matter involves Nixon's decision this week to name Karen King Mitchell, a longtime staffer who had headed the state's Department of Revenue, to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

James Harris, a former Blunt aide who now heads a group called Better Courts for Missouri, asserted today tha Mitchell’s appointment underscored the flaws with the state's "supposedly non-partisan judicial selection process known as the 'Missouri Plan.'

“Once again, we see how our judicial selection plan is extraordinarily politically charged,'' Harris said. "While the judicial commission sent Governor Blunt few choices who shared his judicial philosophy, Governor Nixon was given a panel made up entirely of Democrats, including a close personal friend, for this judicial appointment."

Nixon has emphasized Mitchell's qualifications:

"Prior to leading the Department of Revenue, she served for more than two decades in the Office of the Attorney General. There, Mitchell held a number of positions including chief deputy attorney general, state solicitor and chief counsel of the governmental affairs division. During that time, Mitchell personally argued cases at every level of the court system, including the Supreme Court of the United States.; Mitchell also served as a law clerk for judges on the Missouri Supreme Court and Missouri Circuit Court, 16th Circuit.."

Mitchell graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1981 and later went on to get her JD at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Nixon also is not the first governor to name a loyal aide to a top judgeship. When Republican John Ashcroft was governor, he named his chief of staff, Chip Robertson, to the state Supreme Court.

In any case, Harris says the Mitchell appointment demonstrates that the state's nonpartisan court plan is partisan. However, the counterproposals that have been pushed by Better Courts for Missouri generally call for the state Senate to OK the gubernatorial appointments.

Supporters of the current system say that adding more politicians to the selection process won't make it less political.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.