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Powerful lawyers and ex-Supreme Court judges file suit to protect current judicial-selection system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2009 - Two former Missouri Supreme Court justices -- Republican Chip Robertson of Jefferson City and Democrat Ronnie White of St. Louis -- are among four lawyers who have filed suit this week to block a proposed ballot measure aimed at ending the state's current system for selecting judges.

Robertson says the ballot proposal -- which has been approved by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan for an initiative petition drive -- is a poorly worded attempt to alter the state constitution, which he called "the DNA of the state."

The four lawyers also include Chuck Hatfield, a former top aide to Gov. Jay Nixon, and veteran litigator Alex Bartlett. Both have figured in many of the state's most noteworthy court fights, including those involving campaign-donation limits and public aid to education.

Robertson, White and their colleagues are representing a bloc of individuals who are actually suing. The plaintiffs include two former state senators -- Republican Roseann Bentley of Springfield and Democrat John Schneider of Florissant.

They filed the suit late Monday. A second suit was filed by former state Sen. Harold Caskey, a Democrat, who says the ballot proposal's "fiscal note'' -- which details the costs of the change -- is inaccurate.

The suits, in effect, say Carnahan should not have allowed the initiative petition drive to go forward.

The suits challenge the effort by Show Me Better Courts to do away with Missouri's nonpartisan court plan, known as the Missouri Plan, where the governor selects a judge from a three-person panel set up by a commission made up of average people (appointed by the governor) and lawyers from the Missouri Bar.

That system covers judges in urban areas and on the state's appellate and Supreme Court.

Better Courts claims the system isn't nonpartisan and favors liberal lawyers. It's proposing that Missouri adopt the federal system, where the president appoints a judge and the Senate approves or rejects the appointee.

The group is now collecting the roughly 160,000 signatures it needs to put the proposed change on next year's ballot.

Among other things, the suit filed by White, Robertson et al says that the paperwork submitted by Better Courts fails to comply with various technical provisions required by state law.

Robertson says the suit also points out the legal problems facing Greene County, where voters just adopted the Missouri Plan two years ago. Voters expected the new judicial-selection system to be in place for at least four years, Robertson said.

Caskey's suit says the ballot proposal's "fiscal note" -- which details the costs of the change -- is inaccurate because it fails to take into account the added costs to the Senate for handling the judicial appointments.

Show Me Better Courts executive director James Harris said he's not surprised by what he called "last-minute, junk lawsuits."

"It has been evident for some time now that legal special interest groups have no restraint of the conscience when it comes to preventing the people from having a greater voice in their courts," he said.

"This proposed constitutional amendment is simple and clear – it would allow Missourians the benefits of using a time-tested system that America’s founders put in the United States Constitution more than 200 years ago. It is laughable for the plaintiffs to assert that the current broken system serves Missourians better than one developed by the minds of great men like George Washington and James Madison."

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.