Attorney Bill Placke has been amazed at the level of opposition from The Missouri Bar and other legal groups to what he sees as reasonable efforts to update the state’s plan for selecting judges.
Placke became the point man on the topic for opponents of the current method of judicial selection, working behind the scenes with the governor’s office as Supreme Court candidates were vetted, participating in debates organized by the Federalist Society and drafting proposed changes for legislators to pursue.
He, along with a few other players, helped bring enough attention to the issue that the legal establishment had to stand up and take notice. The Missouri Bar committed an extra $500,000 this year in part to tout the merits of the current system. A new group, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, was formed, led by former Supreme Court judges, to defend the plan and respond to criticism by Placke and his new group, Better Courts for Missouri.
And Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith dedicated a notable portion of her State of the Judiciary address to the topic. She used the speech to announce small steps the court was taking to open the process, including announcing the date, time and location of commission meetings while still keeping the meetings private.
Keith Birkes, The Missouri Bar executive director, said Placke’s effort made the bar appreciate the judicial selection system and realize the need to better inform the public.
“It got the attention of the legal community both in Missouri and nationally that we had a really precious thing in the way we select judges, and it needed to be protected,” he said.
Once a leader in the Federalist Society’s St. Louis chapter, Placke said he got interested in the issue after friend Ed Martin, then preparing to be the governor’s chief of staff, asked for his thoughts about the plan. Placke said he started digging into it and decided the system was a good concept but had broken down.
Placke said he agrees with others in the legal community that the selection process is still better than direct election for appellate judges. But he said changes must be made, including making the selection commission’s meetings open to the public, as other government bodies are, and lessening what he sees as the undue influence of plaintiffs’ attorneys in naming finalists.
To critics’ dismay, Gov. Matt Blunt named judges from the finalists submitted for two Supreme Court vacancies during his term rather than refusing to select from what many conservatives saw as slates of poor choices. Plan opponents hoped such a move would force action on the issue, such as asking voters to revamp the process.
During the last legislative session, the House debated but eventually defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to change the plan.
Still, Placke said, the movement for change has made significant progress. After all, few issues win approval in the Legislature their first year. The Wall Street Journal ran editorials about the Missouri Plan, and the topic was discussed in the governor’s race.
“We’ve made incredible strides in literally a year,” he said, adding later, “We took what we saw as a corrupted system and brought it into the forefront of public debate.”
And he doesn’t plan to go away quietly, even though he no longer works in Missouri. He’s staying involved and said others also will help the movement carry on. Placke said adoption of the court plan by Greene County voters was a disappointment but won’t dampen calls for revamping the process.
“If you find a principle to believe in, small setbacks like Greene County can always be put in context,” he said, “but a principle is worth fighting for.”
Employment: Senior Vice President, Paxfire, Virginia, July 2008 to present; Vice President and, earlier, Corporate Counsel, Charter Communications, St. Louis, May 2005 to July 2008; Executive Vice President, Augustus International, 2004 to 2005; Senior Legal Director, Liberty Global, Europe, 2000 to 2004; Associate, Clifford Chance, Europe, 1997 to 2000; Associate, Roberts Sheridan & Kotel, (now Dickstein Shapiro), New York, 1995 to 1997; Associate, Holm, Krisel & O’Hara, New York, 1994 to 1995.
Education: King’s College London, post-graduate diploma in European Union law, 2000; St. John’s University School of Law, 1994; University of Dayton, B. A. in business administration, 1989