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Court plan reform bill sent to Senate

Less than a day after it won initial approval in the Missouri House, a resolution altering Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan was sent to the Senate on Thursday.

Rep. Stanley Cox’s resolution passed 85-72, three votes more than the constitutionally needed amount to send legislation to the Senate. Among other things, Cox’s resolution would increase the number of judicial nominees from three to four. The Appellate Judicial Commission would also have to produce another panel if the governor rejects his first choices.

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia

The resolution would also add another layperson to the Appellate Judicial Commission and would call for the names of applicants for judicial vacancies to be made public.

Cox, R-Sedalia, positioned his resolution as a series of “tweaks” meant to make the plan more publicly accountable. He said on the floor that a small group of people – namely trial attorneys – had inordinate influence on the selection process.

“It first of all opens the window of light onto the one branch of government that the selection process is actually done in secret,” Cox said. (watch video of Cox talking about the court plan and another video about the vote board malfunctioning)

Opponents of the legislation questioned why the current plan needed altering. Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, said other states adopted Missouri’s method of choosing judges. Significantly altering the plan, she said, could send the wrong message to the rest of the country.

“Any tweaks that were made to it were probably tweaks made under political pressure, not because they were good public policy,” Bringer said. “So why in the world would we want to follow that direction? I think we would want to stay with the good public policy that we have.”

The measure, however, still needs to pass the Missouri Senate to get on the 2010 ballot. Since bills can often be stymied in that chamber through vote-blocking filibuster maneuvers, passage of Cox’s resolution is not assured.

But passage in the House of Cox’s resolution was a step forward from last year, when a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to vote down the measure on the floor.

This time around, a number of Republicans switched sides to vote for the resolution. That included House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs and an attorney, who said his “yes” vote was one of the toughest in recent memory.

“I think they’ve done a lot of work toward making this better,” Pratt said. “We have a great Missouri Plan. … Our model in selecting judges in a nonpartisan way is the model around the country. But every state does [their plan] a little bit differently. And I think we can improve our Missouri Plan.”