Keep politics out of Missouri's judicary
The Kansas City Star
The Missouri Senate is close to passing a resolution that would give the state’s governor excessive and unwise control over the selection of judges to its highest courts.
The resolution, if passed by the House as well, would clear the way for a ballot issue to change the judicial selection process as outlined in the Missouri Constitution. The change would affect vacancies on the state Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court but not those in Jackson, Clay, Platte and other counties that screen judicial candidates through non-partisan commissions.
The measure has already cleared an initiate vote in the Senate. It would alter the makeup of the commission, which screens judicial candidates and recommends three finalists to the governor, who makes the final selection.
The commission currently consists of a Supreme Court judge, three lawyers elected by fellow members of the Missouri Bar and three citizens selected by the governor. The Senate resolution would remove the Supreme Court judge, keep the number of Missouri Bar electees the same and increase the governor’s appointees to four.
Missouri’s nonpartisan judicial selection system has been under attack, mostly by conservative politicians and pro-business groups that have been unhappy with some court decisions. A handful of critics have regularly ponied up with hefty donations for campaigns and politicians interested in dismantling the plan.
The Senate resolution, sponsored by Jim Lembke of St. Louis, is less draconian than proposals to elect statewide judges or allow for Senate confirmation of the governor’s appointees.
But by giving the governor the majority of appointments on the nominating commission, the resolution sets up the prospect that a one-term governor could affect the state’s highest courts for many years. The measure specifies that a governor gets to appoint two commission members upon taking office and two additional members in mid-term. Staggering the appointments at four-year or even six-year intervals would be a better idea.
Once again, though, the legislature wants to fix a system that isn’t broken. Missouri’s selection system has consistently produced distinguished judges who’ve serve the state and the public well. Recently, the Supreme Court passed rules aimed at increasing transparency in the selection process. There is no reason to politicize judicial selection by giving the govenor unilateral power to control the commission through his appointees.