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Statewide battle over Missouri judges is being fought in St. Charles -- in court and on the streets

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2010, updated April 19, 2010 - Show Me Better Courts, a group seeking to overhaul how Missouri selects most of its judges, expects to be back in a St. Charles County court Tuesday in a renewed quest for a restraining order against a rival group.

(Initial plans to seek the court order on Monday were delayed by preparation matters, such as getting documents notarized, a spokesman said Monday afternoon.)

Friday afternoon, a St. Charles judge dissolved the temporary restraining order that she had issued earlier against the Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Action Fund, which is accused of harassing Show Me Better Courts' petitioners. They are collecting signatures from registered voters to get a measure on the November ballot to change the state's judicial-selection system so that all judges are elected.

Judge Lucy Rauch said today that her initial order had been granted without Show Me Better Courts giving Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts enough notice to counter the accusations.

But Show Me Better Courts lawyer Jared Craighead, and executive director James Harris, said late Friday they will ask for a new order on Monday. The judge's dismissal was "on technical grounds and not based on the merits,'' said Craighead, the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.

That's not how Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts sees it. Said advisor Ken Morley in a statement:

"Today’s ruling dismissing the baseless complaint made by advocates of Illinois-style judicial elections is an important victory for those committed to protecting Missouri’s non-partisan system for selecting judges. We have an obligation and a right to educate Missourians about this dangerous initiative to politicize Missouri’s courts, and we have every intention to continue doing so. Missourians must know the dangers posed by this risky plan to inject money and politics into Missouri’s courtrooms."

Meanwhile, Show Me Better Courts has compiled affidavits from some of its signature-collectors to back up its claims that the rival group is using "blockers" who practice "violence and intimidation to discourage people" from signing the petitions.

Harris said the blockers have disrupted signature-collecting petition drives in front of a library in O'Fallon and in downtown St. Charles. The two cities fall in the 9th and 2nd congressional districts, two of the districts where Show Me Better Courts is collecting signatures.

Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts says its workers are not pressuring anyone, but are making people aware of the petitioners' objectives.

UPDATE: Over the weekend, Harris reported on an incident in south St. Louis in front of the Oak Branch Library, where police were called when several people with the Fair and Impartial Courts group began taking pictures and shooting video of a petitioner as she discussed the issue with two women who were asked to sign. The two women called the police, said Harris. The police said there was nothing illegal about taking photographs and shooting video.

Meanwhile, the Beacon heard from people in St. Charles who had been approached by Harris' petitioners at several locations.

Battle over ballot proposal

Show Me Better Courts will need just under 160,000 valid signatures from registered voters in six of the state's nine congressional districts to get its proposal on the November ballot.

Harris says the group is on track to collect at least 200,000 such signatures, which must be turned in by May 2 to the Missouri secretary of state.

Show Me Better Courts' proposal seeks to revamp the state's judicial selection system so that all Missouri judges -- including those on the state Supreme Court -- are elected by voters.

Now, judges in specific urban and suburban areas -- including St. Louis and St. Louis County -- are chosen by the governor from a three-person slate assembled by a panel made up of gubernatorial appointees and members of the Missouri Bar. That same process is used for Missouri's appeals courts and for the Supreme Court. The 60-year-old system is known as "the Missouri Plan'' and is used in a number of other states.

Local judges in rural Missouri counties, and in some collar suburbs, already are elected.

Show Me Better Courts claims that too many appointed judges are liberal, and that elected judges would be answerable to "the people, not special-interest groups or elite legal industry associations."

Supporters of the current system, including the Missouri Bar and Gov. Jay Nixon -- a lawyer and a former Missouri attorney general -- say the current system was set up to create an impartial selection process less prone to political pressure.

Battle over Bucks

Meanwhile, campaign-finance reports filed this week show that Show Me Better Courts has raised far more money. Its report filed Thursday showed that the group had raised $260,180, spent $237,330, and had only $22,850 as of March 31.

But the report doesn't include $685,000 donated to the group since April 1. That money includes $250,000 from Herzog Construction Co. in St. Joseph and a transfer of $300,000 from the group's previous campaign-finance committee, Better Courts for Missouri.

Meanwhile, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts reported raising $87,150, spending $32, with $87,118 on hand as of March 31. Since then, the group has received $30,000 from the Hershewe Law Firm in Joplin, Mo.

Harris' group has filed an ethics complaint against the Missouri Bar, accusing the legal association of doing a lot of campaigning against his proposal without reporting any spending on behalf of Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts. The Bar says it has spent no money, and that its members are defending Missouri's current judicial-selection system as an exercise of free speech.

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.