Missouri selects appellate and some circuit judges in a unique way, copied by many states. The “non-Partisan Court Plan” or “Missouri Plan” allows a committee of lawyers and lay people to select a panel of candidates, with the sitting Governor to select a judge from the panel. Since the committee has overlapping terms, the group picking the panel is unlikely to be from the same political party as the sitting governor, so that neither party can completely control judicial selection.
Without understanding the process, folks in the Missouri Legislature like Jim Lembke have attempted to destroy this system and give more power to the sitting governor. Initially, this was a partisan move, as Lembke and other republicans wanted then Republican governor Matt Blunt to make partisan selections. In a rare exercise of intellectual honesty, however, Lembke has continued to push for scrapping the Missouri Plan and giving politicians more influence in the process.
Any significant change in the Missouri Plan has been opposed by the Missouri Bar , which is made up of lawyers and judges in court every day, as opposed to politicians who only want control of the courts. The fear is that a change in the non-Partisan plan would inject more politics into the selection process. (Many Missouri judges are elected to office outside of the Missouri Plan, but even these are not political appointees but elected officials.)
Enter the US Supreme Court. Yesterday, in Caperton v. Massey Coal, the Supreme Court disqualified a West Virginia Supreme court justice from hearing a case after one of the parties, Harman Mining, spent about $3 million to get him elected to the court. Harman Mining spent the money only after losing a $50 million verdict that was destined for review by the West Virginia supreme court, raising the appearance that the justice was pushed to the court so he could return a favor. Even if this didn’t motivate the judge, the mere appearance of impropriety is enough to cause most judges to recuse themselves from a case. Justice Benjamin in West Virginia, however, refused to do so. The US Supreme Court said he should have.
Missourians enjoy a judicial selection system where all appellate judges and many circuit judges are outside the reach of political money. Shouldn’t we protect this system, rather than expose our citizens to store bought justice?