JEFFERSON CITY – Proponents of a constitutional amendment that would give the governor more control over the selection of Missouri judges have abandoned plans to mount a campaign to win over voters this fall.
Rich Chrismer, spokesman for the pro-amendment group Better Courts for Missouri, said Tuesday ballot language approved by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and upheld by a Cole County judge was “deceptive and hopelessly biased.”
Because the wording would initially be so unpopular with voters, supporters have no desire to dedicate the resources needed to win this fall, Chrismer said. Those resources will instead be saved for a future campaign, which will likely focus on replacing the current system with the direct election of all Missouri judges.
“The amendment proposes a modest and minimal set of reforms, but the ballot language paints a very different picture that would certainly be very hard to overcome,” House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said in a statement. “Providing an accurate representation to enough voters to ensure they are able to make an informed decision would be a nearly insurmountable goal with ballot language this biased.”
When the Republican-controlled legislature approved the measure in May, lawmakers could have written their own ballot summary. Instead, they left the task to the secretary of state.
“It just seems like sour grapes to me,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who fought the proposed amendment. “They wasted a tremendous amount of legislative time, energy and resources trying to get this thing onto the ballot, and when they aren’t happy with the process they take their ball and go home. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
The proposed amendment -- which will still appear on the Nov. 6 ballot -- would allow the governor to appoint a majority of members of the commission that nominates finalists for openings on the state Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals.
Currently, the commission is comprised of three attorneys, three gubernatorial appointees and a Supreme Court judge.
The amendment would replace the Supreme Court judge with another appointment by the governor. Governors would get to appoint two commissioners during their first year in office and two more in the third year of their term.
Additionally, the constitution would no longer prevent all of the governor’s appointments from being attorneys.
Carnahan’s ballot summary asked voters if the state constitution should be amended to give the governor increased authority to, “appoint a majority of the commission that selects these court nominees; and appoint all lawyers to the commission by removing the requirement that the governor's appointees be nonlawyers.”
A Cole County judge ruled last month that Carnahan’s summary, “accurately reflects the legal and probable effects of the proposed amendment without bias, prejudice, deception or favoritism.”
To its supporters, the changes were small tweaks to the system which they say would limit the influence of unelected lawyers over the judicial branch.
But critics argue the changes would inject politics into what should be a nonpartisan system. Even some Republicans opposed the measure out of concern that it would give the governor too much authority over who sits on the bench.
The proposed amendment narrowly cleared the Missouri House 84-71, just barely over the 82 votes needed to pass legislation. Twenty Republicans joined 51 Democrats in opposition.
In the Senate the amendment passed 19-12, with four Republicans and all 8 Democrats voting against the measure.
Missouri adopted its judicial selection process in 1940 to reduce the role of politics in the judiciary and lessen the influence of urban political machine bosses – specifically Kansas City’s “Boss Tom” Pendergast. The goal is to select judges based on merit rather than on political affiliation.
The commission submits a panel of three finalists to the governor to fill court vacancies, and the governor must appoint one person from that list. After being appointed, judges must stand for periodic retention elections.
Opponents of the judicial selection plan argue that politics still play a role. In 2007, former Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, considered rejecting all three nominees for an opening on the Supreme Court. Since then, Republicans have tried numerous times to make changes to the plan, arguing that attorneys have gained too great a role in the nominating process.
In 2010, proponents of a constitutional amendment mandating all judges run for election fell short of the required number of signatures needed to be placed on the ballot.
Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, a group formed to oppose the constitutional amendment, said Tuesday it would continue its efforts through the fall election.
“For more than 70 years Missouri has served as a national model for selecting judges based on merit and not on politics. Missourians simply do not support overturning our nonpartisan system for picking judges with one that allow politics into our courtrooms,” said Skip Walther, treasurer of Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts. “We will continue to educate Missouri voters on why it’s dangerous to allow politicians to control what is now a nonpartisan process."