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Opponents of Missouri's judicial-selection plan now launching drive to get change on 2010 ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2009 - Opponents of Missouri's current system for judicial-selection, known as the nonpartisan Missouri Plan, announced this morning that they plan to launch an initiative petition drive to get a proposed constitutional amendment  on the ballot in 2010.

Their chief proposed change would require state Senate confirmation of all judges nominated by the governor. Now, the judges are appointed after a panel selects three nominees. The panel is made up of members of the public selected by the governor, and lawyers selected by the Missouri Bar.

The group Better Courts for Missouri, which has sought for years to change the current setup, told reporters in a conference call that it has decided that an initiative petition is the only way they have a chance of forcing change. Such an effort will require roughly 120,000 signatures from registered voters, collected from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts.

A similar ballot effort, which could have gotten on the ballot with legislative approval, was blocked by the state Senate last session.

Better Courts and its allies, including state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay (who also participated in Monday's call), contend that the current setup gives too much power to the Missouri Bar and governors, with no policing by the legislative branch. Supporters of the Missouri Plan say it's less partisan and less political than if the state Senate was involved.

Better Courts says its ballot proposal is patterned after the federal judicial-selection system, whereby the president nominates judges and the Senate confirms or rejects them. Depending on the partisan makeup of the Senate, and the party of the president, the system sometimes has led to long delays in Senate votes. Better Courts says its proposal gives the state Senate a set period to act.

Better Courts for Missouri, which declined Monday to identify its donors who fund the group, estimates its signature collection effort will cost about $900,000. It plans to hire professional signature collection groups to do the job.

Executive director James Harris said the group will identify the donors involved in its ballot in accordance with state law, which requires that contributors be listed on regular reports filed with  the Missouri  Ethics Commission.

The group also will face some challenges before the signature collection process can begin. The wording of any initiative petition proposal must first be approved by the office of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

In 2008, several groups found themselves in lengthy court fights with Carnahan over ballot wording. They objected to her "ballot summary,'' which they viewed as unflattering. In several key cases, Carnahan won in court.

In 2010, Carnahan is expected to be on the ballot as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Harris said his group filed its petition proposal with Carnahan's staff this morning.

UPDATE: The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys issued a sharply worded rebuttal this afternoon.

“Better Courts for Missouri should change its name to Justice for the Highest Bidders,” said association president Alan Mandel. “Their attempt to hoodwink Missouri voters into believing they want change for any other reason than to escape accountability to Missouri consumers is a gross misrepresentation of the truth.”

He added that "the members of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys have grown weary of being labeled as nefarious conspirators who gather in 'smoke-filled rooms' to twist the judicial selection process. In fact, the only smoke being generated in this whole scenario comes from the strangely named Better Courts group, which is attempting to blow smoke up Missourians’ collective skirts."

Sara Schuett, MATA's executive director, said she found Better Courts' assertions to be "laughable coming from a group whose director won’t even reveal the source of the money being used in this attempt to cripple the justice system."

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.