Missourians were fed up with “Boss Tom” Pendergast’s political machine abusing the state’s judicial system.
So in 1940, they changed the state’s constitution to create what’s now known as the Missouri Plan.
Many local judges continued to be elected in partisan elections, but in urban areas and for the state’s highest courts, the new plan called for a panel of lawyers and citizens to name a slate of candidates for judicial openings. The governor then chooses who ultimately gets the job.
Hailed by its supporters for taking politics out of the judicial branch, the Missouri Plan continues to be used today and has served as a model for 34 other states that use merit selection to fill some or all judicial vacancies.
But in recent years, it has come under scrutiny from Republicans who say the system is dominated by trial attorneys who have tilted the ideology of the courts. They’d prefer direct election of judges or a federal-style system where the governor appoints judges with state Senate confirmation.
The Star asked its readers what they wanted to know about how Missouri selects its judges, and what they wanted to ask our panel of 51 business leaders, policymakers and community catalysts participating in “The Missouri Influencers” series ahead of the November election.
Through the Your Voice tool, readers said they wanted to know whether term limits for judges should be on the table.
And the Influencers responded with a near unanimous “no.”
“If you term limit judges, they will know from their first days on the bench that they will eventually return to private practice,” said Woody Cozad, a veteran lobbyist and former chairman of the Missouri GOP. “The temptation will be great to hand down decisions that will enrich them when they’re back on the other side of the bench. A party able to offer them well-paid employment might get favored treatment. Generally, I favor term limits. Not for judges.”
Jane Dueker, a lawyer, radio host and Democratic political adviser, said even judges who are selected using the nonpartisan plan must stand for retention election and face a mandatory retirement age of 70.
“We do not need judges worried about their next job,” Dueker said. “That negatively impacts the appearance of impartiality. Also, term limits would create a less experienced judiciary. Like legislators subject to term limits, not having to live with the consequences of your decisions has a negative impact on the decisions made.”
Changing the way Missouri selects its judges has been a passion of James Harris’ for years. The veteran GOP political consultant has been a driving force behind unsuccessful Republican efforts to make changes to the Missouri Plan.
He, too, believes judges should not face term limits because they already have many limitations, such as mandatory retirement age and retention elections.
“If the concern is about changing the state judiciary to make judges more responsive to the needs of Missouri, the best way to do so is by replacing the Missouri Plan with direct judicial elections,” he said.
In 2010, Harris was part of a group called Better Courts for Missouri that tried and failed to put a measure on the ballot calling for direct elections of judges. Several pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the system have gained little traction.
In 2012, legislators voted to place a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot that would have given the governor more control over the selection of judges.
Under the proposed amendment, the governor would have gained the power to appoint four of the seven members of the commission that chooses nominees for the Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court. Currently, the governor appoints three of the seven.
Its supporters said it would have been a small tweak to the system. But just like previous and more sweeping proposed changes to the judicial selection process, it ultimately flamed out. The group backing the amendment abandoned its campaign, and the proposed amendment was overwhelmingly defeated with 76 percent of voters opposing it and only 23 percent in favor.
Mike Talboy, director of government affairs for Burns & McDonnell and former state legislator, called the Missouri Plan a “very logical and thoughtful approach. It would actually be better if this was in place across the entire state.”
Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Council member and former state senator, agreed with the nearly every other Influencer that term limits for judges were a bad idea. In addition to mandatory retirement ages and retention elections, she noted that there are additional methods to ensure judges are performing well in their jobs.
“In addition to the electoral checks,” she said, “the (Missouri) Bar and the judiciary have a strict code of conduct with an effective process for punishment and removal of judges who violate the code.”
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This year, the Republican-led Missouri General Assembly passed a sweeping tax on the heels of the tax cut passed by Congressional Republicans. At a time when Missouri struggles to balance its budget, the move infuriated Democrats. But Republicans argue the cuts were necessary for economic growth.
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