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Missouri Bar lays out plans for defending the state's judicial-selection process

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2009 - The Missouri Bar is preparing for what many of its leaders believe will be a top focus next year:

Defending the state's 60-year-old system for selecting judges, known as the Missouri Non-partisan Court Plan.

That effort "will probably consume a lot of our time next year,'' said outgoing Bar President Thomas Burke on Wednesday, as he briefed dozens of the association's leaders -- lawyers and judges -- during the association's three-day annual meeting downtown at the Hilton at the Ballpark.

Conservative critics have formed a group called Better Courts for Missouri (formerly, Show Me Better Courts) to conduct an initiative petition drive to get a proposal on next year's ballot that would scuttle the Missouri Plan in favor of a setup similar to the federal selection process.

Under the Missouri Plan, a panel made up of gubernatorial appointees and members of the Missouri Bar select three judicial nominees. The governor selects one of them.

Under the federal system, the president appoints a judge, who is confirmed or rejected by the U.S. Senate.

The proposed Missouri ballot measure calls for the governor to nominate a judge, with the state Senate approving or rejecting the choice.

"In our minds, that will politicize the plan,'' Burke said.

Better Courts for Missouri maintains that the current system is political, and gives too much clout to the Bar, which many conservatives view as a Democratic-leaning group.

Burke laid out to fellow Bar members the basic points of the two lawsuits filed by a bipartisan array of allies seeking to block the initiative petition drive.

But Burke said the Bar itself will focus primarily on educating the public on what it sees as the benefits of the plan.

The Bar is setting up a statewide speakers bureau charged with traveling the state to speak to any group -- from Rotary and Lions clubs to church groups and senior-citizen organizations.

At Wednesday's session, members also got to see and hear what leaders called standard TV and radio ads in favor of the Missouri Plan that have been airing for months. From April through June, the Bar ran 102 TV spots and 1,292 radio ads throughout the state -- a small number overall that will need to be beefed up, Burke acknowledged.

Stronger spots, developed with the aid of political consultants, will be produced if the initiative petition measure gets on the ballot, Burke said. But he emphasized Wednesday that it will be a challenge for the Bar and its members to raise the money to counter the millions of dollars that he predicts the Better Courts group will spend.

In response to an audience query, Burke said the Bar also needs to be prepared for Missouri Plan critics to make a renewed push for legislative action when the Legislature goes back into session in January.

Earlier this year, the GOP-controlled state House passed a proposal similar to the initiative-petition proposal. However, the Republican-led Senate killed it.

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.