Breakfast Forum – June 6
Two opponents and a supporter of proposed changes to Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan drew their election-year battle lines Wednesday morning.
At a breakfast discussion sponsored by Missouri Lawyers Weekly, panelist Doreen Dodson, a partner at The Stolar Partnership, predicted a tough campaign over a proposed change to the state constitution that would affect how appellate judges are selected.
The measure, on the ballot later this year, would give sitting governors control over more appointees to the commission that nominates judges to the appellate courts.
“I think proponents of the measure… are prepared to put millions of dollars in the campaign,” said Dodson, a longtime plan defender and former president of The Missouri Bar.
Panelists’ views of the proposed changes stood at opposite ends, from a major overhaul that thrusts too much power into the governor’s hands, to not “much of a shakeup,” in the words of panelist James Harris, a court plan critic and activist. Judges typically serve at least 12 years, and appeals court openings aren’t that frequent, he said.
“All we’re talking about today is bringing the Missouri Plan in line with other states,” Harris said.
Joining Dodson and Harris on the panel were Randy Scherr, a lobbyist who has worked for a coalition of pro-court plan bar organizations, and Scott Lauck, a Missouri Lawyers Weekly reporter who covers the state capitol. S. Richard Gard Jr., Missouri Lawyers Media’s president and publisher, moderated the discussion at Maggiano’s Little Italy, in St. Louis County’s Richmond Heights. Missouri Lawyers Weekly is a sister newspaper of this publication.
The success or failure of the measure will depend entirely on the campaigns on either side, Lauck said.
Currently, the Appellate Judicial Commission comprises three citizens chosen by the governor, three lawyers elected by members of The Missouri Bar, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The measure the Legislature passed this year would allow the governor to pick four of the seven voting members of the commission. The appointments also would be made in the first two years of a single four-year term instead of on a more staggered basis, as they’re made now.
The bar would continue to elect the remaining three members. The commission also would include a nonvoting former judge chosen by the Supreme Court. In addition, the commission would recommend four nominees, instead of three, to the governor.
The ballot language describes taking “one complex and fairly obscure way of putting judges on the court and replacing it with an equally complex and obscure way of putting judges on the court,” Lauck said.
“I don’t think it’s self-explanatory,” Lauck said. “It will really hinge on who makes the better argument.”
Dodson’s argument, she said, would be: “Keep big money and politics out of our judiciary.”
Scherr said giving a governor four seats out of the seven on the commission would give the governor too much influence.
Scherr described an incident in the late 1980s when, he said, a representative of the governor met a commission member on his way into a meeting and handed the commission member a slip of paper with three names on it. When he asked what it was, the governor’s representative said that those were the people the commission member would vote for.
“He wadded it up and threw it down and said, ‘I don’t think so, and the next time this happens I’m going to call a press conference.’ Now the governor is going to have four committed people to which he can hand slips of paper?” Scherr said. “I’m not saying it would happen, but it could happen.”
Under the current system, trial lawyers exert too much influence, Harris said. And Missouri bar members who vote for three commissioners are not accountable to the public, as the governor is, he said.
“The big question is where you think the authority should rest,” Harris said.