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Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan

Partisan Elections

In the first 30 years of Missouri's statehood, the governor appointed the judges of the Supreme Court and circuit courts with the advice and consent of the senate. After much public discussion, voters amended the Missouri Constitution in 1850 to provide for the popular election of judges. This system continues in effect today for courts in 100 of Missouri's counties, where voters elect their judges in partisan elections.

Roots & Scope of the Nonpartisan Plan

During the 1930s, the public became increasingly dissatisfied with the increasing role of politics in judicial selection and judicial decision-making. Judges were plagued by outside influences due to the political aspects of the election process, and dockets were congested due to time the judges spent campaigning.

Then, in November 1940, voters amended the Missouri Constitution by adopting the "Nonpartisan Selection of Judges Court Plan," which was placed on the ballot by initiative petition. The adoption of the plan by initiative referendum resulted from a public backlash against the widespread abuses of the judicial system by the "Boss Tom" Pendergast political machine in Kansas City and by the political control exhibited by ward bosses in St. Louis.

The nonpartisan plan provides for the selection of judges based on merit rather than on political affiliation. Initially, the nonpartisan plan applied to judges of the Supreme Court; the court of appeals; the circuit, criminal corrections and probate courts of St. Louis city; and the circuit and probate courts of Jackson County. In 1970, voters extended the nonpartisan plan to judges in St. Louis County, and three years later, voters extended the nonpartisan plan to judges in Clay and Platte counties. These changes are reflected in the Missouri Constitution, as amended in 1976. The Kansas City Charter extends the nonpartisan selection plan to Kansas City municipal court judges as well. Under the constitution, other judicial circuits may adopt the plan upon approval by a majority of voters in the circuit.

The nonpartisan selection plan, commonly called the Missouri Plan, has been adopted in some form in more than 30 states.

Operation of the Plan

Under the Missouri nonpartisan court plan, a nonpartisan judicial commission reviews applications, interviews candidates and selects a judicial panel. For the Supreme Court and court of appeals, the appellate judicial commission is composed of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, three lawyers elected by The Missouri Bar (the organization of all lawyers licensed in this state) and three citizens selected by the governor. Each of the circuit courts in Clay, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties and St. Louis city has its own circuit judicial commission. These commissions are composed of the chief judge of the court of appeals district in which the circuit is located, plus two lawyers elected by the bar and two citizens selected by the governor. All of the lawyers and citizens must live within the circuit for which they serve the judicial commission.

Once the judicial commission meets, it selects a panel of the three most qualified applicants and submits that three-person panel to the governor. The governor has 60 days in which to appoint one of these three panelists to fill the vacancy. If the governor does not select one of these three panelists within the 60-day timeline, then the selection of the new judge goes back to the judicial commission.

The nonpartisan plan also gives the voters a chance to have a say in the retention of judges selected under the plan. Once a judge has served in office for at least one year, that judge must stand for a retention election at the next general election. The judge's name is placed on a separate judicial ballot, without political party designation, and voters decide whether to retain the judge based on his or her judicial record. To inform voters about the performance of nonpartisan judges, lawyers participate in a judicial evaluation survey in which they rate those judges about whom they have personal and direct knowledge. They evaluate judges on important characteristics such as fairness, legal analysis skills, diligence and decisiveness. The results of this judicial evaluation survey then are distributed to the public via the media and the League of Women Voters.

Since adoption of the Missouri nonpartisan court plan in 1940, no appellate judge has been voted out of office, and only two circuit judges have been voted out of office. Judge Marion D. Waltner of Jackson County was voted out in 1942. The other, Judge John R. Hutcherson of Clay County, was voted out in 1992 after receiving failing reviews from lawyers in the judicial evaluation survey.

The Missouri Court Plan has served as a national model for the selection of judges and has been adopted by a number of other states.

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