In 1940, following an era of machine politics in St. Louis and Kansas City that out-Tammanied Tammany Hall, Missourians amended the state constitution to change the way judges were selected to fill vacancies on the benches of the Missouri Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the circuit courts of Jackson County and the municipality of St. Louis.
The amendment was placed on the ballot and enacted in response to the hijacking of the justice system by the powerful political machines of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City and Edward Butler of St. Louis. Under the Bosses, justice resided in their pockets, and nowhere else.
The amendment offered was dubbed “The Missouri Plan” and under it, judicial elections were replaced with a judicial commission comprised of judges, lawyers and citizens which reviews and interviews applicants for vacancies on the bench and winnows the field to three choices. The Governor then has sixty days to select the new judge from those three candidates. If he fails to do so in the allotted time, the decision reverts to the recommending body. At the first General Election following one year on the bench, the new judge faces the voters who decide whether the appointed jurist shall be retained.
In balloting to determine whether judges be retained, the state Bar Association issues ratings for the judges before the election, and the ratings and recommendations are made available to the public. It is in the best interest of attorneys and citizens alike for judges to be fair-minded and non-partisan, so the ratings are extremely apolitical.
This system has worked very well for us for 67 years, and has served to keep the state courts as apolitical as possible, while efficiently and promptly filling vacancies on the bench with qualified jurists. In the years since 1940, it has been expanded to include all circuit court judges in Clay, Platte and St. Louis Counties.
One of the most elegant features of the plan is the way it defangs the money monster. Success in partisan elections depends on money, on the financial contributors of donors (a very iffy proposition when we are talking about the very concept of Justice).
The Missouri plan works so well that in the intervening decades, 36 additional states have adopted the plan in whole or in part.
Unfortunately, last summer the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White (famously “blue slipped” by Ashcroft and denied a hearing after Clinton nominated him to the Federal bench) created a vacancy on the Missouri Supreme Court and gave little Matty Blunt the opportunity to stamp his wittle feet and pitch a hissy-fit and try to break another part of the state government that actually works. Injecting politics back into the process appeals to him, too, of course. And as a bonus, he got to throw a tantrum because he doesn’t think the commissions pay him proper homage as the elected executive of the state.
Don’t be fooled, his hissy-fit is pure political theater. Blunt is attacking the nonpartisan judge selection because he wants total control of the appointments. But there is a more insidious undertone to it, too. He’s firing a warning shot across the bow of the judges not covered by the non-partisan system who do have to stand for election. It makes the Governors position crystal clear – if he doesn’t like their decisions, he can orchestrate a deluge of money for opposing candidates. It has already happened.
In June, a thinly-veiled BluntCo initiative rolled out to attack the judicial selection process. Flying under the flag of something called “The Adam Smith Foundation” the minions of the governor went on the attack, while simultaneously playing the victim card….neat trick, that.
June 26th, 2007
Adam Smith Foundation Launched
(Jefferson City) – The Adam Smith Foundation is proud to announce its official launch as an organization committed to promoting conservative principals [sic] and individual liberties for Missouri. Our Foundation seeks to provide Missourian’s with information they need to hold their State and local elected officials as well as activist judges directly accountable for their actions.
“There are countless leftist political groups in Missouri, but only a handful of conservative organizations. We strive to fill an important void by holding politicians in Jefferson City accountable.” said John Elliott, organization President. “Big spenders in state and local governments have forgotten that tax dollars belong to the citizens, and we will promote ways to reduce the size of government.”
Blunt pursues this agenda at the peril of further splitting the Missouri GOP. When State Senator Kris Koster left the Republican party in August, he cited the Blunt Administrations attack on the judiciary was one of his key reasons for switching parties. Koster, a former prosecuting attorney for Cass County summed up the Blunt administration very well when he said “I can’t think of another administration in our lifetime that has such disregard and such contempt for the third branch of government.”