Actually, the constitutional amendment being proposed by Pervez Lembke to revise Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan could be worse. At least he isn’t proposing that we Illinois-ize our system and elect all our judges. Kevin Horrigan, in his P-D column, explains how awful that would be:
On page 82 of John Grisham’s brand-new legal thriller, “The Appeal,” a billionaire chemical manufacturer named Carl Trudeau facing a $41 million civil judgment for poisoning a small town’s water supply is talking with a super-slick political fixer named Barry Rinehart:
Barry laughed and crossed his legs. “We do campaigns. Have a look.” He picked up a remote and pushed the button, and a large white screen dropped from the ceiling and covered most of the wall, then the entire nation appeared. Most of the states were in green, the rest were in a soft yellow. “Thirty-one states elect their appellate and supreme court judges. They are in green. The yellow ones have the good sense to appoint their courts. We make our living in the green ones.”
“Yes. That’s all we do, and we do it very quietly. When our clients need help, we target a supreme court justice who is not particularly friendly, and we take him, or her, out of the picture.”
No, Lembke isn’t suggesting all judges be elected. He knows enough to stop short of that. Still, he’s aiming to hamstring the plan that’s been a model for 34 other states. If opponents of non-partisan judicial selection can cripple it in its birthplace, they can move on next to the states that copied our plan. Lembke knows that, so he’s not overplaying his hand. He’s only suggesting that the commission that selects judicial nominees be completely politicized and that nominees face senate approval.
And the problem with requiring senate approval will be readily apparent if you examine what happens at the federal level. Dan Raniere, a local attorney who spoke recently on the non-partisan court plan, cites the case of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh–yes, a cousin of that Limbaugh. Judge Limbaugh was nominated by Bush to be a U.S. District Court judge in eastern Missouri. Even though he is well respected as a judge, he’ll never get a hearing by a Democratic-majority Senate. Not with that name.
Raniere insisted that if senate hearings were required in Missouri, ninety percent or more of the people he knows who might consider applying to be judges would refuse to. They’d have to forgo their practice until confirmed, which would take at least nine months and perhaps more if there was any delay. By then, if the attorney was not confirmed, he would have lost his business.
Here’s how ridiculous the changes proposed in Lembke’s constitutional amendment are: When Ashcroft was governor he had the opportunity to appoint all seven Supreme Court justices, five of whom are now retired. They are all Republicans and all five of them oppose changes to the non-partisan plan.
Whether Lembke’s plan makes it onto the ballot or not and whether it passes if it does get there won’t change problems that are building in the outstate areas that do elect judges. There, Republican front groups are taking out of state money to defeat judges that rule unfavorably on issues that concern Republicans.
Just before the 2006 election, Fired Up! did some fine investigative reporting and told us:
Earlier this year, wealthy out of state funders spent millions trying to buy a couple of laws onto the books here in Missouri, but Cole County courts wisely struck down attempts to institute TABOR and Eminent Domain reform. Now those same funders are seeking revenge, trying to buy a judgeship here by spending obscene amounts of money attacking incumbent Judge Tom Brown.
Judge Brown, who had been in office approximately forever, was defeated. That slick operative in the Grisham novel would have shrugged and said with a smile: “That’s how it’s done.” The shadowy group that engineered Brown’s ouster was funded by New York real estate investor, Howie Rich.
It’s difficult to say whether Rich is involved in the latest incarnation of Republican smear-the-judiciary groups, Better Courts for Missouri. Fired Up! reports that Blunt henchmen Jeff Roe and James Harris are the frontmen for Better Courts, but they’re keeping a tight lid on where the funding comes from. Raniere reports that if you call the number listed on their website, no one answers or returns your call.
People on both sides of the political spectrum have speculated that pressure from Better Courts might have influenced Judge Callahan when he ruled against Robin Carnahan in January, saying that her rewrite of the ballot language for the anti-affirmative action petition was “troubling.”
One of the people doing the speculating about Callahan’s decision was Jeff Roe himself in this posting (since deleted from his blogsite):
Unfortunately, Callahan’s decisions could be overturned by judges at a higher level who have not yet learned the lesson Callahan seems to have learned.
Apparently Roe thought his group had successfully pressured Callahan. But then Roe thought better of bragging about it so publicly.
The game plan on the right is to let the legislature and the governor hand the state over to big business and social conservatives, then prevent ordinary citizens from having any recourse by also controlling the judicial branch. The first part of that plan will suffer severe damage if and when Democrats retake the legislature and the governor’s mansion. As for their attempt to control the judicial branch, I begin to wonder if the non-partisan plan needs to be expanded to the outstate courts as well.