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Time For MO To Reform Judge Selection

On the heels of an important column from The Kansas City Star’s Steve Kraske, The St. Joseph‘s News-Press is echoing his call and urging Missouri to reform the way Judges are appointed.

The full editorial is below and makes some key points about why the current system has “deficiencies” and encourages the legislature to be “proactive” in reforming the current selection process.

EDITORIAL: Judge Selection Due Fresh Review
St. Joseph‘s News-Press 
March 28, 2017
Proponents of the status quo frequently note Missouri’s method of selecting judges is considered a model for other states.

The context for this praise is our state did something demonstrative in 1940 to try to reduce or remove politics from this process. Other states followed, adopting some or all of the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan in advancing the notion of merit selection over politics.

The original intent may have been pure but the reality is politics has been a part of selecting Missouri judges for a long time under our “nonpartisan” method. The state’s citizens also are asked to decide whether to retain judges they almost universally know nothing about.

This is not a call to start over, but certainly an appeal for parties on both sides of the aisle to acknowledge the deficiencies and explore ways to improve our selection of judges to the state Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals and judicial posts in our larger cities.

To do something proactive in this regard would be to once again stand as a model for good government — which, for this purpose, can be fairly defined as responsive to and protective of the public’s interests.

Under the Missouri Plan, a supposedly nonpartisan commission reviews candidates for a judicial vacancy. The commission then sends to the governor a list of candidates considered best qualified. The governor may select a candidate from the list or, if he or she does not, the commission makes the selection.

Judges selected in this manner later must stand in a “retention election.” If a majority votes against retention, the judge is removed from office. If the majority votes in favor of retention, the judge serves out a full term.

Political columnist Steve Kraske with The Kansas City Star has noted Republican leaders in the General Assembly want changes in the judicial selection plan. Kraske both reported on their concerns and offered his own suggestions.

In Missouri, three of seven commission members who recommend candidates for the Supreme Court are elected by The Missouri Bar. He would cut that to two, suggesting familiarity with the judges is overrated when partisanship is suspected on behalf of bar members.

This is a promising idea, although we have to wonder whether this one change would be enough to restore balance to the nominations process.

Kraske also would consider doing away with retention elections in favor of making 10- to 12-year appointments to judicial positions. Ending retention elections by uninformed voters theoretically would remove the opportunity for partisan campaigns to sway them.

These are just two ideas for improvements; surely others would follow if our state’s leaders came together behind the view that even a “model” plan for selecting judges should be subjected to a fresh look after more than 75 years.

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