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Redistricting fallout puts Missouri Plan back in play

Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan may be back in the legislative crosshairs amid growing criticism of last week’s release of judicially drawn state political districts.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says legislators are interested in reconsidering Missouri’s process for selecting judges. Above, the Missouri State Capitol. File photo Wikimedia Commons

“Suddenly, we’re a little more interested in the judiciary this year,” House Majority Floor Leader and 2013 Speaker-elect Tim Jones (R-Eureka) said Thursday.

State Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) first broached the subject in his remarks to a 50-person audience at an Armstrong Teasdale legislative preview breakfast Thursday. His segued to the topic with a joke, suggesting the money to remedy the state’s projected $600 million operating shortfall maybe should come from the judiciary budget.

Then, speaking more seriously, he said legislators were indeed interested in reconsidering Missouri’s decades-old process for selecting judges. Said Dempsey, “We all know that we’re accountable, and we’d like judges to be accountable as well.”

He said the alternatives could include anything from partisan elections to tinkering with the current Missouri Plan to putting more non-lawyers on court selection panels.

A six-member Missouri Supreme Court-appointed panel of judges released its set of legislative maps Nov. 30, breaking the impasse within a bipartisan commission selected by the governor. State Supreme Court judges, of course, hold their posts by virtue of the nationally emulated Missouri Plan for judicial selection, as do judges on the high-court appointed redistricting panel, including its chairwoman, West District Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Hardwick.

Jones took issue with how the judge-made maps pit more than 58 incumbents against each other, and he offered examples of how the new boundaries split established communities.

“It’s a very strange map,” he said. In fact, he suggested the Legislature might want to revisit the state’s redistricting procedures before it has to go through the same exercise in another 10 years.

The court plan has been subject to a number of legislative reform efforts in recent years. None has been successful, but the Supreme Court took steps last year to open up the selection process.

More immediately, Jones said the Legislature needed to take up the imbalance of judgeships across Missouri’s judicial circuits. Population shifts have left some court systems short-handed, while others have more judges than their caseloads would justify. “It hasn’t been looked at in decades and decades,” Jones said.

What kind of priority the Republican-controlled Legislature will give to these judicial branch issues in an election year is far from clear. The legislative session opens Jan. 4.

Dempsey noted the Missouri Plan may not be at the top of the list, but he added later: “We’ve got a court that’s out of step with the Legislature.”