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Two Missouri Supreme Court judges offer careful praise of current selection system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - Two of Missouri's judges on the state Supreme Court -- Mary Russell and Laura Denvir Stith -- were careful during a joint appearance Wednesday to take no position on an initiative petition drive aimed at eliminating Missouri's current appointive system for selecting circuit and high court judges and making all of them elective posts.

But during the Holden Public Policy Forum at Webster University, each left little doubt of where she stood.

Both judges praised the nonpartisan selection system as they explained the process in detail. It involves panels, made up of members of the Missouri Bar and citizens appointed by the governor. Stith said that the alternative was politcking and lobbying by judges looking to be appointed. 

Stith also was critical of Illinois' judicial elections and the millions of dollars some of her counterparts have spent on their campaigns.

"I won't address anything on the ballot now or anything that could be on the ballot," said Stith.

But she soon added to the audience, "I suggest you look across the river in Illinois," where Supreme Court judges are elected.

She cited the $9 million contest in 2004 between Republican Lloyd A. Karmeier and Democrat Gordon E. Maag, which at the time was the most expensive judicial race in the nation's history. Karmeier won.

Since then, said Stith, the costly contest has continued to cast a cloud over Karmeier because it is mentioned almost every time his name comes up in any judicial proceding.

Under Missouri's system, governors choose judges who sit on the Supreme Court, appeals courts and lower-level judges in the "circuits' that serve the urban and suburban areas of the state. The governors select from three-person panels of nominees, selected in turn by selection commissions made up of members of the Missouri Bar and people chosen by the governor.

While not perfect, Stith said that the system "prevents judges from promising deals in order to get elected."

Neither she nor Russell criticized the judicial elections in rural Missouri, other than to observe the candidates are often well-known since their communities are usually small.

The forum's moderator, former Gov. Bob Holden, had appointed both women to their current posts. Holden praised their qualifications and added that their selection had represented -- in part -- his desire to diversify the state's highest courts, which were predominantly all white males.

In 1994, said Stith, 10 percent of Missouri's judges were women. Now, about 21 percent are women -- although she noted the percentage was lower -- 12 or 13 percent -- in rural areas where the judges are elected.

Russell and Stith emphasized, that as judges they do not get involved in politics. Each also related in detail her love for the law and her respect for the purpose of the judiciary.

The judges also briefly enlisted the audience in a game of "You Be the Judge," in which they related real cases before the court, and asked the audience to guess the actual decision.

Russell observed that much has changed in the decades since both women served as judicial clerks. "Back then," she said, "judges didn't mingle in the community or make public appearances."

Now they do.

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.