Cox: Time to limit lawyers' ability to pick judges
Since beginning my service as your state representative, I have worked very hard on a measure that would reform the method we use in Missouri to choose appellate judges and the judges in the urban areas. If my proposed changes to the Missouri Constitution passes both houses of the Missouri General Assembly, it would still have to be approved by a majority of voters in a statewide election before it would becomes law.
Judges in court houses in the vast majority of Missouri counties have always been chosen just like most other county officials — by elections. I have never heard of any dissatisfaction with this method of selecting our judges. There is nothing like facing the voters periodically to cause a public official to do a good job. My proposal would not change how these judges are chosen. Many of my constituents might be surprised to find out that appeals court judges including Missouri Supreme Court judges and many trial judges in the more urban communities are not chosen like other public officials.
These judges are not chose by election. These judges are chosen in a process that begins with a group of commissioners who take applications of individuals who are seeking an appointment. These commissions chose three candidates and submit their name to our governor for the final selection. This system for choosing appellate and urban trial judges originated in the 1940s and is sometimes referred to the “Missouri Plan.”
My concern about the Missouri Plan is that it is dominated by lawyers. This system is dominated by lawyers because a clear majority of these commissioners are chosen by and must be members of the Missouri Bar. I do not accept the premise that Supreme Court judges should be chosen by lawyers who appear before them. I think the selection process should be more representative of our state. Under our present system, members of the third coequal branch of government in Missouri is being chosen by a system dominated by licensed attorneys. Just like choosing the executive and the legislative branches, I believe that ordinary citizens should have their interests protected and that they should have the dominant role in selecting all judges.
Under the current provisions of the Missouri Constitution, this selection process is secret. The identity of the applicants and the time and place of the commission meeting had always been secret until about a year ago when the Missouri Supreme Court voluntarily made some changes to open up the process. Clearly these changes were a result of my prior legislative activity. Under present law they could go back to the secret system as it existed for more than 50 years at any time. During her visit to Columbia a couple years ago, even moderate former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed such secrecy is bad for judicial selection. If we retain the current selection method, we need to change the law to assure that the identity of the applicants be made public and that meetings of the commission remain public.
The House Joint Resolution that I have filed in the past will change the present system so that the public has more power than any special interest group in the selection of judges and it will assure that the commission doesn’t go back to secret meetings. This has been a difficult struggle. The organized lawyers trade associations in Missouri have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying and advertising to stall this effort and effectively retain the status quo. A group of concerned citizens earlier this year unsuccessfully attempted to get a proposal for direct election of these judges on the ballot. The same groups that opposed my reforms challenged in court this initiative petition attempt as well. I have been encouraged by many individuals to again file this reform legislation. I am filing this legislation in the near future.
Bottom line, my proposal would make the process more public, make it more accountable and remove the dominance of special interest groups. The selection of judges is too important to leave up to lawyers and the public needs to have their interest protected.
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