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New initiative petition proposals would require Supreme Court judges to run for office

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Activists on both sides of the ongoing battle over how Missouri judges are chosen are paying close attention to a new wave of initiative-petition proposals that would transform the state’s highest judges from gubernatorial appointees into elected officials.

In effect, the proposalswould do away with Missouri’s 70-year-old nonpartisan court plan for filling judgeships.

The Missouri secretary of state’s office has approved for circulation two initiative-petition ballot proposals that would:

  • Require judges for the state’s appellate and Supreme Court to run as partisan candidates for the posts.
  • Expand the number of state Supreme Court judges to nine from the current seven.
  • Shorten their terms of office to eight years. Judges now serve 12 years before they come up for a "retention vote." In effect, voters can remove high-court judges, but they cannot put them in office.

Although local judges in Missouri already are elected, except for those in the urban and suburban areas, special selection panels choose nominees for the state’s appellate and Supreme Court, with the governor making the final choice.
Under the initiative-petition proposals, the governor’s role would be eliminated. So, too, would the nominee-selection panels made up of lawyers chosen by the Missouri Bar and average residents selected by the governor.

The two initiative-petition proposals are similar, differing only on some of the provisions regarding the election of Supreme Court judges.

One proposal would require that each of state’s eight congressional districts would elect one judge; the ninth would be elected at large.

The second proposal would split the nine judges so that three would be elected in each of the state’s appellate districts.

Among other things, the proposed change – especially the congressional-district proposal -- would appear to guarantee stronger high-court representation from rural Missouri.

Now, no restrictions govern where a judge must reside. But under Missouri’s Democratic governors, there’s a perception that more of the state’s Supreme Court judges have come from the urban/suburban areas of Kansas City or St. Louis.

James Harris, head of Better Courts for Missouri – a group long advocating that all or most judges be elected – said he is looking closely at the initiative-petition proposals.

“This is a pretty well-balanced proposal that would allow diversity on our Supreme Court from around the state,” Harris said. He also contended that the aim is “to empower the people to give them control of their courts.”

Allies are particularly interested because neither proposal generated a lawsuit challenging its ballot wording or fiscal note, which could significantly slow down the signature-selection process.

Either measure would be a proposed constitutional amendment, requiring signatures from at least 157,788 registered Missouri voters from six of the state’s eight congressional districts. The number needed would depend on which districts were used for signature collection.

Signature collection in Missouri can be expensive because groups often have to hire people to collect the signatures. The signatures must be turned into the secretary of state's office by May 4, to qualify for the August or November ballot. All the signatures must be certified, which usually takes several weeks.

The Missouri Bar Association has yet to take a formal position on the proposals. But a few weeks ago the association, which represents the state’s 32,000 lawyers, released the results of a poll that it said showed little public appetite for doing away with the current judicial-selection process.

The poll was conducted by Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, a group made up of allies of the current judicial-selection system.

Skip Walther, the group's treasurer and past president of the Missouri Bar, called the latest proposals "a serious threat."

"We're taking this threat to the merit selection of judges very seriously," he said.

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.