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Better Courts for Missouri group about to submit new judicial-selection proposal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2009 - Better Courts for Missouri, the group out to revamp how the state chooses its circuit and appellate judges, is about to resubmit its petition for an initiative-petition drive to get its proposal before voters next year.

James Harris, the group's executive director, said in an interview this morning that the new petition will be submitted  this week -- and possibly as soon as today -- to the Missouri secretary of state's office. Its earlier petition was withdrawn about two weeks ago, after the attorney general's office advised Harris of some "technical questions,'' as he put it.

Those technical changes have been made. But the group's proposed constitutional amendment also appears to have been overhauled, at least from what had been bandied about during the last legislative session (and killed in the state Senate).

According to Harris, the ballot proposal will simply call for the governor to nominate a judge to the state's circuit (urban areas) and appeals court seats, and for the state Senate to approve or reject the nominee.

No more judicial-selection panels, as the Missouri system has now, which involve at least six members (three named by the governor and three by the Missouri Bar.)

Harris and other allies say Better Courts' plan is patterned after the federal system for judicial selections (the president nominates, and the U.S. Senate OKs or rejects.)  Harris said he's gotten lots of positive reaction from some judges and major business leaders or groups in the state. (The Missouri Bar is among the opponents of the changes, which would do away with Missouri's nonpartisan courts plan, in place for about 60 years.)

Harris emphasized that the Better Courts plan won't affect the exisitng election of judges in rural Missouri.

Depending on "different scenarios,'' Harris projects that his group's campaign will cost from $3.5 million to $5 million.

About $900,000 will go for the collection of signatures from registered voters to get the measure on the ballot. Harris says he has already talked to several signature-collection firms; the cost will be less if they also are collecting signatures for another initiative-petition drive.

Harris said the Better Courts group already has filed a campaign committee with the Missouri Ethics Committee.

UPDATE -- The new petition was indeed refiled Tuesday.


Harris says he had no involvement in Gov. Jay Nixon's decision to award a license fee-office contract (for the Warrenton office) to Harris' grandmother, Mary Winkelmann. She had initially obtained a contract for the Wentzville office back in 2005, when Harris oversaw the appointment process for then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican.

(A hattip to Fireupmissouri for initially reporting the latest award (although not for the tone); we knew about the award earlier, but were trying to get more information first before posting anything.)

In any case -- Harris' father, John Harris, helps his grandmother run the office, along with the office manager. James Harris says he has no role in the running of the office.

James Harris also said he had no role in lobbying Nixon, a Democrat, on his relatives' behalf.

As far as Harris is concerned, his grandmother's success in winning the contract is proof that "the governor is doing what he said; he's awarding the contracts to those who submit the best bids."

That means Harris is apparently not of the same mind as the Missouri Republican Party, which has been critical of the awards to various allies of Nixon or the state Democratic Party.

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.