In Defense of the Non-Partisan Court Plan
This op-ed piece was submitted to the Sedelia Democrat
In his December 11 opinion piece, Rep. Stanley Cox stated that he would like to ensure that the public's interest is protected in the selection of Missouri appellate judges and the trial judges in major metro areas. Although The Missouri Bar agrees with Rep. Cox that the public's interest should be protected, the state bar disagrees with the notion that Missouri's Non-Partisan Court Plan silences the voice of the public. In fact, Missouri's Non-Partisan Court Plan gives voters the last say on who remains on the bench. After serving for a year, every Non-Partisan judge must stand before the voters in a retention election. If at least 50 percent of voters choose to retain the judge, he or she serves a full term. At the end of each term, the public again decides whether or not that judge should remain on the bench.
Unlike other elections, where the public has to wade through TV ads and campaign literature to try to make an informed choice about candidates for public offices, Missourians have a reliable, unbiased source of information about Non-Partisan judges. A special committee, composed of an equal number of laypeople and lawyers, conducts a thorough evaluation of each Non-Partisan judge who will be on the ballot. The committee reviews juror surveys, lawyers' surveys, and written opinions. The committee then makes these survey results and opinions public, along with its recommendation on whether or not each judge should be retained. Armed with this unbiased information, voters can make an informed choice about Non-Partisan judges.
As Rep. Cox noted, the Supreme Court of Missouri has made the process of selecting judges more transparent. Not only can members of the public nominate applicants to the Judicial Commissions tasked with screening candidates based on their merits, but the actual interviews of candidates are open to the public. These interviews are conducted by the Commission members, consisting of three laypeople, three lawyers, and a judge. The names of all applicants are made public, as are the written applications of the three candidates whose names and applications the Commissions select to be forwarded to the governor for a decision on who to appoint.
The Non-Partisan Court Plan works. It provides a system of checks and balances that limits any group or politician from being able to hand pick judges. And in doing this, it protects the public's interest, ensuring that Non-Partisan judges do exactly what they should do – provide fair, impartial and efficient justice to all who rely on the courts. For these reasons, more than 30 other states have adopted different features of Missouri's merit selection system– and that's something in which we can all take pride.
Lynn Whaley Vogel,
The Missouri Bar