The Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, better known in the fair-courts field as “The Missouri Plan” for merit-based selection of judges, turned 75 today, and Justice at Stake saluted the milestone:
“America’s original judicial merit selection plan turns 75 today,” said JAS Interim Executive Director Liz Seaton. “For three-quarters of a century, the Missouri Plan has served its state well, and today two dozen states use this system to select qualified judges for their highest courts. As contested judicial elections become costlier and more politicized every year, it’s time to take a close look at merit selection’s success in limiting financial and political influence in judicial selection and recognize the potential value of the Missouri Plan to other states struggling to keep their courts insulated from big-money politics and special interest pressures.”
The approval of the Missouri Plan in 1940 was a rejection of Democratic machine politics by citizens who were tired of the bitter partisanship and intense financial interests involved in the traditional method of electing judges. Instead, they favored a system that would appoint judges based on qualifications and experience and ensure that those selected would remain impartial and respect the rule of law.
Approaching age 75, the Missouri nonpartisan court plan — also widely known as merit selection of judges — “has served the state well” and “Missourians should be proud of it,” says a STLtoday.com editorial. It also suggests that some tweaks are in order.
The pioneering system “keeps special-interest money from stacking the courts and avoids the spectacle of partisan elections for judges. By contrast, in states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania, lawyers wage multimillion-dollar campaigns for the bench,” the editorial says. It says that the Missouri Bar has mounted a traveling exhibit to mark the 75th anniversary.
When it comes to possible shortcomings of the existing plan, the editorial notes, “It still helps to have friends in high places, which raises a perception problem. This could jeopardize the reputation of the court plan.” It suggests changes to the rules for membership on nonpartisan screening commissions and expansion of merit selection: Read more
The new municipal judge in Ferguson, Mo. has announced sweeping changes in court procedures, in the wake of a highly critical Justice Department report (see Gavel Grab) and with the intention of restoring public confidence in the system.
Judge Donald McCullin ordered withdrawal of all arrest warrants issued since Dec. 31, 2014, and new court dates and payment options for defendants. For indigent people, the new plan includes community service or commutation of fines. Pending final outcome of a case, he will restore drivers’ licenses for people who lost them over failure to appear in court or to pay a fine.
“These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start,” McCullin said, according to the Associated Press. “Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive. Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pretrial release because of the inability to make bond.”
Is a historic judicial appointment near in Greene County, Mo.? According to the Springfield News-Leader, of eight applicants for a circuit judgeship there, six are women. Never before has a woman sat on the circuit bench in Greene County.
Under a merit selection system that took effect in 2008, the 31st Judicial Circuit Commission is interviewing candidates for the position in open proceedings, and will recommend three finalists to the governor, who will in turn appoint one of them. Before 2008, judges were chosen by election.
“I would hope that the commissioners there have an awareness that justice is most credible when it is more reflective of the community at large who will appear in front of a judge seeking fairness and judicial wisdom,” said Vivian Eveloff, founder and director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
In a lengthy editorial about the need for reform of the municipal court system in Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praises the state’s merit selection system for choosing top judges.
The editorial notes prominently that former Missouri chief justice Edward D. “Chip” Robertson Jr. is a member of a working group assigned to study the municipal court system and recommend any needed fixes. It salutes Judge Robertson as one who fought valiantly to defend the “Missouri Plan,” as the merit system is called, from attacks:
“In states where judges run in partisan elections (and in circuit courts in outstate Missouri), their campaigns are funded by the very lawyers and corporations who have interests before them. A state Supreme Court race, as in Illinois, can cost millions. In fighting for the merit plan, Judge Robertson protected the integrity of the Missouri court.”
In the latest fallout of a U.S. Justice Department report critical of the police and court systems in Ferguson, Mo. (see Gavel Grab), the state Supreme Court named a Missouri appeals court judge to oversee all municipal court cases in Ferguson.
The assignment was made public as Ronald J. Brockmeyer, the municipal judge who was criticized in the Justice Department report for abuses, resigned his post.
According to the New York Times, the Justice Department report said, “The Municipal Court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.” Read more
“Ferguson, a city of 21,000, is unusual in some respects — it has issued the most warrants of any city in the state relative to its size, for example — but the unfairness in its court system that the Justice Department highlighted is not limited to it, to St. Louis County or even to Missouri.”
Offenses include using “police and courts as money making ventures,” racial bias in policing, and exchanges of racist emails, according to the New York Times. The report found that 85 percent of traffic stops and 93 percent of arrests over a two year period targeted the city’s black population. “A black motorist in Ferguson was twice as likely to be searched.. even though searches of whites turned up drugs and other contraband more often,” the article explains.
Citing Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation to a Washington, D.C. group that tried to defeat a local Missouri judge, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial asks Sinquefield for more transparency and less deceit.
In an editorial styled as a letter to Sinquefield, the editorial board asks, “Could you please instruct your vast army of political operatives to stop being deceitful about how they spend your money?” It acknowledges that on some issues it agrees philosophically with the activist donor, but “When you — or the people who work for you — secretly funnel money into Washington, D.C., political action committees to hide the source of the funds, it looks really sneaky and underhanded.”
The letter refers to money Sinquefield gave to the Republican State Leadership Committee and its spending that amount and more to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, who ultimately won reelection in November (see Gavel Grab). It says “your spokespeople wouldn’t fess up. Neither would the RSLC.” Read more
When a national organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), pumped a six-figure sum in a lower-court election to defeat an incumbent judge, it captured national news media attention (see Gavel Grab). Now a local newspaper is following the money trail.
According to the Jefferson City (Mo.) News Tribune, “Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield gave $300,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee in October, an RSLC filing with the federal Internal Revenue Service shows.” The RSLC gave more than $304,000 to its Missouri political action committee, which spent $10,000 in support of a local legislative candidate and “most of the rest” in support of Brian Stumpe, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, a Democrat.
The News Tribune reports, “Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation would appear to be a direct contribution to the RSLC, for its expenses in Missouri. But his donation was just under 55 percent of the total $548,349 the RSLC received from Missourians during the Oct. 1-Nov. 24 reporting period.” Read more