Justice Matters: Voters retain final say over all Missouri judges

24 November 2014

Justice Matters: Voters retain final say over all Missouri judges

Photo of Chief Justice Mary R. RussellThe following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

Even though our elections are over, I still hear from friends and family who were confused about why some judges’ names appeared on the ballot in contested partisan elections and other judges’ names reflected no partisan affiliation and were subject to voters deciding if they should be retained.

Since 1850, most judges in outstate Missouri are elected in popular elections in which judges and judicial candidates alike are designated by their political party affiliation. This system continues to work well for the rural areas of our state, where judges and judicial candidates are better known in their communities and, as a result, expensive political campaigns generally do not occur. 

But in the 1930s, partisan campaigns for judges on the state’s high court and large metropolitan trial courts fell into disfavor with Missouri citizens as political party bosses exerted increasing control over judicial candidates. Such persons as “Boss” Tom Pendergast of Kansas City hand-picked judicial candidates based on their allegiance to political viewpoints as opposed to the law. Large money contributions from Pendergast and other political leaders assured the candidates of their election. 

By 1940, the public became disgruntled with this political process for selecting judges. A group of citizens, business and civic leaders, and lawyers circulated an initiative petition to place on the ballot a new process to reform the judicial selection in our state. And voters approved the selection process, as part of our state constitution, in what we now call the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan. 

This plan originally applied to judges who serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri, the Missouri Court of Appeals and the trial courts in St. Louis city and Jackson County. But the plan also allows citizens in other counties in the state to opt into this selection process by obtaining a required number of signatures on a petition to put the issue before the voters at an election. And over the years, voters in St. Louis County, Clay, Platte and Greene Counties have approved opting into the plan as well. 

Under the plan, any lawyer who meets certain constitutional requirements may apply for a judicial vacancy. From the pool of applicants, a merit commission composed of citizens, attorneys and a judge vets the applicants by reviewing their lengthy applications, conducting public interviews and checking references. The commission selects three persons whom the commission agrees are highly qualified. Those persons are then screened by the governor, who has 60 days to name the new judge. After the new judge has served one year, the new judge’s name is placed on the next general election ballot so the voters can have the final say in whether that judge should be retained in office. No partisan labels are attached, and judges must refrain from political campaigning.

Judges are retained to serve terms ranging from four to 12 years depending on the level of court they serve. In Missouri, all judges must retire by age 70.
Under the Missouri plan, political labels are not allowed and wheelbarrows of money thrown into judicial election campaigns are prohibited.  As a result, the possibility of political favoritism and corruptness is greatly eliminated.
Yet because there are no campaign commercials on television or radio or in newspapers, I continue to hear many persons say they are uncertain if they should vote to retain the judges who are listed on their ballots. 
There are various sources of information available to voters to learn more about the judges whose names are on the retention ballot.  An anonymous survey of people who have been in the judge’s courtroom, lawyers, jurors, and the public, is taken to evaluate each nonpartisan judge’s performance, and a committee of citizens and lawyers study the judge’s performance.  The survey results and performance evaluations are posted at www.YourMissouriJudges.org. Further, opinions written by the appellate-level judges are also available online through the judiciary’s website, www.courts.mo.gov
Regardless of the manner in which judges are selected, they remain accountable to the voters through the ballot box. Since the inception of the Missouri plan nearly three-quarters of a century ago, our state judges have maintained a high degree of fairness, impartiality and honesty. Judges never should make decisions based on a person’s wealth, status or the popular political views of the times. We all take the same oath to uphold the constitutions and laws of our state and our nation, and that is the only allegiance we should have.