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We’re number one! We’re number one!

In one important aspect of good governance, Missouri is–believe it or not–number one. Our non-partisan court plan is a model for more than half the states in the nation. 34 other states have based their court plans on the one which Missouri–in desperation, if you want to know the truth–adopted in 1940. The Pendergast machine in K.C. had so corrupted the judiciary by allowing only politically connected and compliant judges to run for election that something had to be done.

So the plan was set up to avoid the danger of bought and paid for judges in major metropolitan areas. It was not deemed necessary to institute it  statewide. It applies only to St. Louis, Kansas City, and their surrounding areas, as well as to appellate judges (there are three districts) and the state Supreme Court. St. Charles County, for example, elects its judges. Now that Springfield has mushroomed so much, that area is considering opting into the plan.

But, as I was saying, we’re number one–that’s assuming the Republican spoilers don’t get a constitutional amendment to politicize it passed this fall.  

Unless you’re an attorney, you’ll need some background on how the plan works if you’re going to understand how damaging those proposed changes would be. And the most important part to notice about it is how the political influence is minimized. I wouldn’t kid you, the plan isn’t non-partisan. It’s more like … as minimally political as anyone could reasonably hope for. Which is good enough.

When there’s a vacancy to be filled, any practicing attorney may apply and be interviewed by a commission, which then selects a slate of three names to submit to the governor. He chooses one.

Dan Raniere, speaking on the subject of the court plan at a recent meeting, emphasized that many will argue and history will bear out, that the plan has produced high quality judges. In the 68 years since it was implemented, only two judges have failed to be retained. He says that K.C. and St. Louis metro area judges are extremely jealous of their honorable reputations. They’re careful, just to offer one example, never to have even one drink when they’re away from home unless they have a designated driver.

They have no intention of risking public opprobrium. Which brings us to the next part of the process: keeping the job. Once a judge has been appointed, he must obtain voter approval after a year on the bench and again every six years. Retention tends to be automatic, but the Missouri Bar is working to get more information to voters about the judges on the ballot. They have been surveying lawyers and passing the results of the survey along to the Women’s League of Voters. (One judge last year failed to get enough attorney votes for a positive recommendation.) Soon, the Bar will also begin surveying jurors.

The final facet to note about the plan is who comprises the committees that select judicial nominees. In Jackson and St. Louis counties, the five member committee contains: the chief judge of the circuit, two non-lawyers appointed by the governor for six year terms, and two lawyers elected to the position. The seven member committee that selects appellate and supreme court nominees consists of: the chief justice, three non-lawyers appointed by the governor for six year terms, and three attorneys elected to the position.

So here’s the bottom line on how non-partisan the plan is: a politician, the governor, makes the final selection; and the governor appoints some of the selection committee. It’s not perfect, but it could be leagues worse.

Consider Illinois, for example. In one 2006 judicial race, the candidates spent a total of $11,000,000. That’s eleven, as in million.

Or, closer to home, consider St. Charles County. Last year, while he had a case pending before a St. Charles judge, Dan Raniere received an invitation to attend the judge’s golf tournament fundraiser. Raniere made it clear that he wasn’t accusing that particular judge of impropriety, but still … the situation just ….

When you consider, then, the potential for conflict of interest, why would anyone try to weaken the non-partisan plan? What Republicans always answer is that judges aren’t held accountable.

Exactly. They’re not, and they shouldn’t be–not on a case by case basis anyway. What they should be is independent, free to render an unbiased judgment without undue pressure. Because otherwise, judges will be wrong in about 100 percent of the cases they decide. After all, one party is upset about every judgment rendered. We don’t want that one party, if he has powerful friends, to hold judges “accountable.”

They’re held accountable–when they’re up for retention, not when Pervez Musharref Lembke decides that someone ruled the “wrong” way on a custody case.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that much about the court system should butt out of impeaching judges or rewriting the non-partisan plan. But they’re at it anyway, and the plan building the most steam right now is Lembke’s.

His plan would enlarge, and above all, politicize the selection commission. Every member would be a political appointee: two from the bar (one of each party), four appointed by the governor, one by the speaker of the House, one by the minority leader of the House, one by the President Pro-Tem of the Senate, one by the minority leader of the Senate, and two members of the Missouri bar by the Attorney General, all for two year terms.

The only thing it doesn’t do is invite every member of the legislature to appoint a couple of his buddies.

But, in fact, it almost does even that, because every appointee chosen by the governor must also go before the Senate for a confirmation hearing. And that’s when the trouble really starts, as I’ll explain in my next posting.