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Group gets OK to circulate petitions aimed at ousting Missouri's judicial-selection system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office announced late Thursday that the approval process is complete for an initiative petition drive sought by Better Courts of Missouri/Show Me Better Courts, a group that wants to get rid of Missouri's current system for selecting judges.

Better Courts wants all judges to be elected, and also calls for limiting the terms of Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges to eight years.

Better Courts is seeking to get its proposal on next year's November ballot.

The group plans to just use the "Show Me Better Courts'' moniker for the signature-selection drive and the fundraising, said executive director James Harris.

Harris had not learned of the secretary of state's OK until he was contacted late Thursday by the Beacon.

The initiative petition seeks to change Missouri's constitution, which now calls for judges to the state's appeals and Supreme courts -- and those in the urban and many suburban counties -- to be chosen by the governor from a three-person panel of nominees selected by a panel of citizens and members of the Missouri Bar.

The current system is called the nonpartisan court plan, although critics -- such as the Better Courts group -- contend it has led to too many liberal judges.

Supporters of the current system, in place for more than 60 years, include the Missouri Bar and many top officials in both parties. They say the process has led largely to a nonpartisan, independent  judiciary.

Harris is a former aide to then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican who often complained about the panels of judicial nominees from which he was to pick.

Better Courts for Missouri and allied members of the state Legislature have proposed various alternatives to the current system, most of which ended up in court because of suits filed by individuals or groups who support the current system.

Better Courts earlier had gotten approval to circulate an initiative petition that calls for Senate approval of the gubernatorial appointees for judgeships. But Harris said that his group will most likely just circulate this latest petition calling for direct election of judges.

Harris said that close to $1 million will be spent on signature collection, and another $3 million -$5 million spent on the campaign. He added that Better Courts expects to be outspent by the Missouri Bar, which already has made it a top priority to defend the current judicial-selection system.

Harris said he expects this latest proposal, like most of the earlier ones to also touch off a court fight aimed at keeping it off the ballot.

Better Courts now must collect roughly 160,000 signatures from registered voters from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts, and turn them into Carnahan's office by May 2.

The ballot title for the petition reads:

"Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

• repeal the current nonpartisan court plan used to select judges and the current prohibition on judges participating in political campaigns; select all judges through partisan elections; and reduce the terms for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges from 12 to 8 years? "

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.