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Mo. Supreme Court Judge Price resigns, defends Nonpartisan Court Plan against critics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2012 - Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr., by far the longest-serving member of the current seven-member court, is stepping down from his post. Price, who was appointed by a Republican governor, wrote that he was doing so out of concern that Missouri's judge-selection system may be changed.

Officially called the Nonpartisan Court Plan, the process has been under fire for years from conservatives who contend the process favors liberal judges. Price disagrees.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s office confirmed late Monday afternoon that Price had notified the governor of his intentions.

Price was appointed in 1992 by Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican, and is among three Republican-appointed judges on the seven-person court. The others are Judges Zel Fischer and Patricia Breckenridge, both appointed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

Wrote Price in a letter to the governor and Chief Judge Richard Teitelman:

"It has been my honor and joy to serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri for the past 20 years. I am especially proud of the many Missouri judges with whom I have served and their commitment to the fair and impartial administration of justice. I am also proud that drug courts and other evidence-based sentencing practices-have expanded throughout our state.

"I began my career in the private practice of law and I intend to return as a working lawyer to the private practice of law. Because I wish to have the best judges possible in Missouri, I want my successor to be appointed by the same Missouri nonpartisan merit plan that has served our state so well for the past 70 years, Accordingly, I intend to end my service as a judge on August 1, 2012."

Said Nixon in a statement:

“For 20 years, Judge Price has served the people of Missouri as a member of the state’s highest court with honor and integrity. He has demonstrated true leadership in addressing the challenges faced by Missouri’s justice system, working to protect public safety, contain costs and ensure the fair application of the law. I wish Judge Price well in the next part of his life and career.”

Price’s departure will give Nixon another chance to put his stamp on the state’s highest court. A special commission will select three nominees from which the governor will choose a replacement.

The Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly has no voice in the matter, a sore spot among some conservatives, some of whom have sought to change Missouri’s judicial-selection process for its top judges. Some of the proposals have called for Senate confirmation of the governor's judicial choices.

Missouri voters will consider a ballot proposal this fall that would change the system by giving the governor more power by giving the governor more control over who sits on the commissions that select the judicial nominees. The ballot proposal also would remove the top state Supreme Court judge as a voting member of the commission.

(Start update): Michael A. Wolff, the Saint Louis University law professor who served on the Supreme Court with Price, said the replacement process will be "a good test for the Nonpartisan Court Plan as we know it.

"What does the court need?" Wolff asked. "It needs somebody who is a smart lawyer, because Ray Price is a smart lawyer. That is what the governor and commission would be wise to focus on. It is always a good thing to focus on but especially now, when the public is focused on how we pick judges."

Wolff said Price recently had what he called "a fine, nonpartisan John Paul Stevens moment," when he dissented from the congressional redistricting decision. The reference is to retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens who was appointed by a Republican but was not partisan in his decisions. "Price was in effect dissenting and saying he would not vote to uphold a plan drawn by Republicans to help Republicans."

Wolff said that Price deserves credit for sentencing, parole and drug court reforms. "He got this into the hands of the legislators.  It is a fairly modest thing, but it's a start and a lasting contribution." (End update).

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.

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