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If Missouri Senate agrees, non-partisan court plan could be put up for a vote

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2009 - Opponents of Missouri's non-partisan court plan are making a last-minute attempt to persuade the Missouri Senate to pass a resolution to send a new judicial selection plan to the voters.

The opponents have paid for radio spots (see end of article) around the state calling on voters to contact their senator to urge passage of House Joint Resolution 10, which would make major changes in the half-century-old Missouri Plan for non-partisan judicial selection.

James Harris, head of Better Courts for Missouri, said his organization had bought time for radio spots in St. Louis, southeast Missouri, northwest Missouri, Jefferson City, Hannibal and Springfield. Harris added, "we've had some good conversations with the Senate leadership" about the possibility of bringing the bill back to the Senate floor.

HJR 10 passed the House but was blocked by a filibuster in the Senate. But with four more days left in this year's legislative session, Harris hopes -- and the Missouri Bar fears -- that the issue could come up again.

Harris describes HJR 10 as an improvement, not a replacement, for the Missouri plan. He said the resolution would break the bar's control of the process by increasing the number of citizens on judicial selection commissions, opening up deliberations of the commissions and allowing the governor to reject the first panel of nominees submitted.

HJR 10, the vehicle now being promoted by Harris' group, also would require that the Senate approve the governor's appointees to the judicial-selection panels that come up with the three nominees.

At least one Senate version also called for Senate approval of the governor's judicial nominees, but HJR10 does not.

HJR 10 already has been approved by the House, but that chamber would have to agree to any Senate changes.

The Missouri Bar strongly opposes the resolution. It notes that the Missouri plan has been a model, copied in more than 30 states around the country because it removes the most blatant partisan politics from judicial selection. The plan was adopted half a century ago in reaction to the abuses of the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City.

Much of the support HJR 10 comes from the political right. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has waged a crusade over several years to scrap the plan, maintaining that it permits trial lawyers to control the courts.

But the nonpartisan court plan enjoys strong support among many moderate and conservative Republicans, including former and current Republican nominees to the Missouri Supreme Court -- former Judge Edward "Chip" Robertson and current Judge Zel Fischer. 

The ad:

When it comes to picking our supreme court judges, Missourians are stuck with a highly political scheme carried out behind closed doors.

Accountable to no one and dominated by personal injury lawyers, an unelected committee picks those judges with no public oversight. Letting the foxes pick who guards the hen house is dangerous for chickens and letting lawyers pick our judges in secret is dangerous for you.

With some sensible reforms, we can solve the problem and save our courts by putting the people back in charge and by making sure our judges are picked out in the open.

But some senators want to keep this process secret. That's wrong. Call 573-751-2438. Tell your senator to let the people vote on this. Tell them to support selecting our judges out in the open, not behind closed doors. That's 573-751-2438.

Paid for by Better Courts for Missouri

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.