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Court plan bills could be DOA in Legislature

The Missouri Senate tackled alterations to the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan for the first time last year. But after the measure failed to come to a vote in the Senate, legislative prospects are dim this year for changing the system for choosing certain judges.

Ron Richard

Ron Richard

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says he won’t even assign any constitutional amendment changing the court plan to committee. He said that the measure’s difficult odds in the Senate pushed him to that direction.

“I tested it once, people said that they thought that they had the consensus in both parts of the building,” said Richard, alluding to pushing a change to the court plan through the Missouri House last year. “Apparently, I wasn’t given the exact truthful information. So I’m not fooling with it. I’m done with it. I’m not even going to give it a hearing.”

Richard added that he would bring up the bill if it came from the Missouri Senate. Last year, the bill died when senators opposed to altering the plan engaged in a filibuster to block Rep. Stanley Cox’s resolution from coming to a vote.

“I’m willing to try about anything once if it seems like a reasonable idea, a reasonable request,” Richard said, adding that the resolution found a majority of votes to pass out of the Missouri House. “I’ve got more important things to do trying to get people back to work and try to keep a little common sense budgeting and getting people to feel better about Missouri than to start getting in issues that are divisive.”

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, said in an interview last year that he would wait and see how the initiative petition process goes before pushing his resolution in the Missouri Senate.

James Harris, executive director of Better Courts for Missouri, said his group would focus on pushing changes to the plan – such as moving away from the current system and into one with direct elections – through the initiative petition process.

“I think the Legislature can pursue some avenues,” Harris said. “Our focus is getting direct elections on the ballot, taking it to the people and allowing them the constitutional right to vote on this to improve their courts.”

Last week, Harris said he has asked to intervene in lawsuits challenging the wording of a plan to move to direct elections for all Missouri judges. Supporters of the current system have filed legal challenges to the state-approved ballot summaries, so they’re tied up in court.

His attorneys on the issue are Todd Graves, a former federal prosecutor who now practices at Graves, Bartle, Marcus & Garrett in Kansas City, and Jared Craighead. Craighead is a former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party and now works at Gibbs, Pool and Turner in Jefferson City.

Craighead says he supports Harris’ proposal to get rid of the Nonpartisan Court Plan. But Graves said he took the case because his firm has litigation experience on ballot measures and has previously represented some of the people involved. He is not a member of the Harris group, Better Courts for Missouri, and declined to say whether he favors the ballot measure or whom he has represented before.

Harris has no problem with the secretary of state’s summary but hopes that by stepping into the case he can urge the court and parties to move quickly so there’s time to make the May deadline to submit voters’ signatures for next year’s November election.

The legal challenges basically prevent Harris’ group from collecting voters’ signatures because if a court rules the wording must change, any signatures gathered under the old summary wouldn’t count.

Harris also said his focus is on putting direct election of judges before voters. He also filed a ballot measure to move to a federal model of appointment by the governor.

-Kelly Wiese of Missouri Lawyers Media contributed to this report.