Nonpartisan Court Plan

Missouri Nonpartisan Court 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 Missouri nonpartisan court plan, commonly called the Missouri Plan, since has served as a national model for the selection of judges and has been adopted in more than 30 other states.

Scope of the Nonpartisan Court Plan

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. Most recently, in November 2008, Greene County voted to extend the nonpartisan plan to its judges.


Nonpartisan Judicial Commissions under 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 makes the selection. It is composed of three lawyers elected by the lawyers of The Missouri Bar (the organization of all lawyers licensed in this state), three citizens selected by the governor, and the chief justice, who serves as chair. Each of the geographic districts of the Court of Appeals must be represented by one lawyer and one citizen member on the Appellate Judicial Commission.


Each of the circuit courts in Clay, Greene, 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.


Filling Judicial Vacancies under the Nonpartisan Court Plan

Regardless of the commission handling the applications, the constitutional process of filling a judicial vacancy is the same. With any vacancy, the appropriate commission reviews applications of lawyers who wish to join the court and interviews the applicants. It then submits the names of three qualified candidates – called the “panel” of candidates – to the Missouri governor.


Normally, the governor will interview the three candidates and review their backgrounds before selecting one for the vacancy. If the governor does not appoint one of the three panelists within 60 days of submission, the commission selects one of the three panelists to fill the vacancy.


The People Retain a Say over Nonpartisan Court Judges

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. A judge must receive a majority of votes to be retained for a full term of office. The purpose of this vote is to provide another accountability mechanism of the nonpartisan plan to ensure quality judges. If a judge retires or resigns during or at the end of his or her term, a vacancy is created, which will be filled under the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan as described above.


To inform voters about the performance of nonpartisan judges, judicial performance evaluation committees, made up of both lawyers and nonlawyers, evaluate objective criteria including decisions written by judges on the retention ballot as well as surveys completed by lawyers and jurors who have direct and personal knowledge of the judges. The judges are rated according to judicial performance review criteria, including whether they: administer justice impartially and uniformly; make decisions based on competent legal analysis and proper application of the law; issue rulings and decisions that can be understood clearly; effectively and efficiently manage their courtrooms and the administrative duties of their office, including whether they issue decisions promptly; and act ethically and with dignity, integrity and patience. The results of these judicial performance evaluations then are distributed to the public via the media, the League of Women Voters and the Internet.


The success of the plan in selecting qualified judges is evident from the fact that, since its adoption, the public has not voted any appellate judge out of office, and only three trial judges have been voted out of office. Judge Marion D. Waltner, a circuit judge in Jackson County was voted out in 1942. Judge John R. Hutcherson, a circuit judge in Clay County, was voted out in 1992 after receiving failing reviews from lawyers in the judicial evaluation survey. And Judge Dale W. Hood, an associate circuit judge in St. Louis County, was voted out in 2016 after only 5 percent of the judicial review committee determined he substantially met overall judicial performance standards.