In the four years and four months he’s been in office, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has had a significant impact on the makeup of the state’s judiciary — and he’s not done yet.
As of Sept. 23, Parson had made 100 judicial appointments since taking office in June 2018. The current governor’s total far exceeds those made by recent governors to serve single full terms. With nearly two years left in office, he might well set a new high-water mark for shaping the bench.
In an exclusive interview with Missouri Lawyers Media, Parson said making good judicial appointments has been a “priority from day one.”
“We didn’t want to rubberstamp anything,” Parson said. “We wanted the commission to do their due diligence and select good people, and then we wanted to start molding the judiciary with what we believed to be the right people on the bench making the right decisions for the people of this state.”
Parson, a Republican, has made 58 appointments under the Nonpartisan Court Plan and 42 to elected positions left vacant by the death or resignation of a sitting judge.
They won’t be his last. Nine announced vacancies are expected to be filled in the coming months, and by next year, Parson is expected to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court when Judges Patricia Breckenridge and George W. Draper III reach mandatory retirement age.
In comparison, Govs. Matt Blunt and Bob Holden, the most recent Missouri governors to serve single full terms, made 50 and 59 appointments, respectively, according to Secretary of State records provided by Parson’s office.
Parson is well on the way to meeting or exceeding the number of appointments achieved by recent two-term predecessors. In his two terms, Gov. John Ashcroft made 132 appointments — including, famously, all seven members of the Missouri Supreme Court. Gov. Jay Nixon made 125 appointments, while Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed 117. (Gov. Roger Wilson, who became governor for a short time after Carnahan’s death in office in 2000, made an additional seven appointments during what would have been the end of Carnahan’s term.)
Governors, of course, can’t shape the bench they way they can their cabinets. Michael Wolff, a former Supreme Court judge and former dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law who served as counsel to Gov. Carnahan earlier in his career, noted that judges named by previous governors are now reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
“I don’t think that’s an unusually large number, given the demographics of the judiciary,” Wolff said. Ultimately, he added, that means Missouri governors can’t shape the bench for a generation the way presidents can with the federal judiciary.
“Missouri judges don’t serve for life,” he said.
Parson’s rash of appointments continues a trend that began under Gov. Eric Greitens, from whom Parson inherited the governorship in 2018. Despite serving just a year and a half in office before resigning while facing criminal charges and potential impeachment proceedings, Greitens made 38 judicial appointments — more than Nixon and Blunt together had named by similar points in their terms. If Greitens had completed his four years in office and filled all the judicial vacancies that Parson filled during that time, the ex-governor’s total for the term would have been 92 judgeships.
Parson said he pays more attention to judicial candidates’ character and community involvement than their politics. He has appointed some identifiable Republicans, such as Judge Jack Goodman of the Southern District, who at one time served alongside Parson in the Missouri Senate. Parson also has named Democrats, such as Judge Mike Colona, a former member of Democratic leadership in the Missouri House and now an associate circuit judge in St. Louis.
Parson said he wants judges who will faithfully interpret the law as it is written and not be an “activist from the judicial bench.”
“I’m not always going to agree with their opinions, but as long as they’re enforcing the laws the way they’re written, the way they’re intended, that’s part of the background we look at,” he said. “Whether I believe that person is going to do that or not is a huge factor when I have to make that decision.”
Under the court plan, the governor has up to 60 days to select his appointee from the panel of finalists, but Parson has rarely pushed that deadline. On average, he’s taken 33 days after the release of the panel to announce his pick. Greitens took 43 days on average, and Nixon took 45, according to Missouri Lawyers Media’s tallies.
Parson’s fastest pick to date also has been his most prominent: Judge Robin Ransom, whom he named to the Supreme Court in 2021 just three days after the Appellate Judicial Commission announced the panel on a Friday.
Ransom is the first Black woman to serve on the high court. Other prominent female appointments include those of Judges Jennifer Growcock and Becky Borthwick to the Southern District, which gave that seven-member bench three women for the first time in its history.
Slightly more than half of Parson’s nonpartisan appointments — 30 out of 58 — have gone to women. That’s in part because several women have been picked twice: Of the eight nonpartisan judges Parson named to one court and later elevated to another, seven are women. That includes Ransom, whom Parson had previously put on the Eastern District.
“Regardless of whether they’re women, men, ethnic background, it’s about good, qualified candidates, and we let the numbers fall the way they fall,” Parson said.
Republicans often have been critical of the Nonpartisan Court Plan, arguing that trial lawyers have too much control over the process and that the candidates rarely have conservative backgrounds. Blunt, who served as Missouri’s Republican governor from 2006 to 2010, famously clashed with the process when he faced two Supreme Court panels with only one candidate with Republican credentials.
Parson doesn’t think the Court Plan is perfect, saying that voters often have too little information to know whether to retain a judge and that governors should be able to reject panels they don’t find acceptable. But for the most part, he said, it has worked.
“You do start realizing pretty quickly when people do start playing politics with it and they start boxing people out, things of that nature,” he said. “Thank goodness that doesn’t happen very often. For the most part, I’ve had a lot of good candidates put before me. In my opinion, when I’ve got two or three candidates that are very difficult decisions to make, I consider that things went well.”
Greitens leaves legacy of judicial picks
Ransom first Black woman to serve on Missouri Supreme Court