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House OK’s Plan reform

Measure still needs another vote to go to Missouri Senate

The Missouri House narrowly passed a proposed amendment Tuesday to change how the state selects its appellate judges.

The measure won initial approval by an 82-72 vote – the minimum positive votes needed to proceed. The resolution needs another vote still to move to the Senate. A similar proposal last year was killed on the House floor.

“All we ask is that the citizens have some involvement. Right now they’re an afterthought,” said sponsoring Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, an attorney.

The details of this year’s proposal have changed a bit, but the goal is the same. The measure would make the process more open, increase the governor’s influence – including letting him reject the panel – and raise the number of finalists recommended for judicial vacancies to four from three. It also would alter the makeup of the panel that considers judicial applicants, giving it equal numbers of lawyers and nonlawyers and requiring commissioners to be confirmed by the Senate.

Critics of the current process say it’s too secretive, that personal injury lawyers have undue influence and there’s no one the public can hold accountable for poor choices. Meanwhile, supporters of the current method say it works well and is the best approach to reduce the influence of politics in the court system.

Freshman Rep. Jason Kander said the current system works and as a practicing attorney, he doesn’t find it a problem that many more people want to be judges than get selected. Rather, he said he wants to appear before “an elite jurist.”

“I don’t see this as Little League baseball. I don’t think it’s important that we give everyone playing time,” said Kander, D-Kansas City.

Rep. John Burnett, another Democratic attorney from Kansas City, also defended the Nonpartisan Court Plan.

“The system that we now have gives us a uniform, qualified bench. We don’t need two kinds of judges, we just need one kind of judge – the qualified kind,” he said. “Political hacks are not good choices for judges, and we don’t want them on the bench, and we don’t want them choosing our judges.”

A Senate version to change the court plan has won committee approval and awaits debate before the full chamber.

If the same language wins approval by both the House and Senate before the session ends in mid-May, it would go on the ballot for voters to consider. It’s likely the election would take place in November 2010.

The resolution is HJR 10.