JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Defenders of Missouri's current system for selecting appellate judges announced an opposition campaign Thursday to proposed changes that will appear before voters this fall.
Former judges, Missouri Bar leaders and business and community officials were criticizing the proposal during news conferences Thursday. They argued the proposed constitutional amendment would inject politics into the selection of appellate judges while giving governors too much sway.
"What they really are trying to do is concentrate power in one political office that they can affect by big money contributions," said former Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr.
Price, who was appointed by Republican former Gov. John Ashcroft and left the court earlier this year, called the changes the wrong plan at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He is among six former state Supreme Court judges who are co-leaders of Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Committee. The opposition group is raising money and plans to campaign against the measure appearing on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Under Missouri's current method of selecting judges, a special nominating commission with three attorneys, three gubernatorial appointees and a Supreme Court judge submit a panel of three finalists for the governor to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court and the three districts of the state Court of Appeals. Whomever the governor appoints stands for periodic retention elections, in which people decide whether to keep the judge in office without another candidate appearing on the ballot.
The method was adopted in 1940 in an effort to reduce the role of politics in the judiciary and lessen the influence of urban political machine bosses. But its critics have argued that politics still plays a role and that attorneys have too much influence.
The proposal that voters will consider would give governors an additional appointment to the nominating commission while replacing the state Supreme Court judge with a former appellate judge who would serve as a nonvoting member of the panel. In addition, the nominating commission now would give the governor four finalists from which to appoint a new judge.
Better Courts for Missouri, which has called for changes in how Missouri judges are selected, said the proposed constitutional amendment makes modest adjustments. Spokesman Rich Chrismer said critics were using "misleading language" to obscure the proposal.
"For many years, Missourians have asked for changes to the Missouri Plan, which will allow us to break the monopoly that trial attorneys and special interest groups have on the selection of judges," he said.
Debate about Missouri's method for selecting judges has percolated for several years. It has spurred proposals in the state Legislature and an unsuccessful attempt previously to put it on the ballot through an initiative petition. State lawmakers this year approved the constitutional amendment, which also must be approved by voters.
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