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Opinion: Law Day 2012 - No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom

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There are many things in life that, unfortunately, we take for granted. We have confidence that when we go to the faucet and turn that handle, water will flow. We don’t question whether lights will come on when we flip the switch – that is, until they don’t work anymore, such as when many of us went without such basics during the 2007 ice storm.

Our courts operate in the same capacity, without many of us thinking about them, even though they can have a direct effect on individuals and businesses.

When a property owner needs to remove a nonpaying tenant, the courts provide an efficient avenue to do so. When a business owner doesn’t get paid on an insurance claim, a judge can interpret the policy and issue a decision. When a contract is at issue, the parties can present their case to a jury instead of resorting to “self help.”

The above examples are not isolated. Thousands of cases are filed and processed each year through our local courts.

Take a moment to imagine a society without an independent judiciary to decide these disputes and administer justice. As Felix Frankfurter stated in United States v. United Mine Workers (1947), “There can be no free society without law administered through an independent judiciary. If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is the law, every man can. That means, first chaos, then tyranny.” This poignant statement is the basis of this year’s Law Day theme: No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.

I was recently at a meeting of the Board of Governors of The Missouri Bar where then-Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. described a recent trip to Iraq, where he was observing its justice system. He described how, not unsurprisingly, when Saddam Hussein took power, its judges lost their independence and, as a result, the system failed its citizens.

Fortunately, this example is nowhere close to surfacing here. But our courts do face ongoing challenges to their independence. The legislature is considering Senate Joint Resolution 51, which would substantially change the way we select our appellate judges. Right now, in Greene County and in our appellate court system  – and, basically, in Kansas City and St. Louis – a team of citizens and lawyers serve on commissions that select the best three candidates for the governor to choose from when filling an open judgeship. Judges selected by the governor must go before voters in a retention election following their first 12 months on the bench and thereafter on a regular basis. It’s a merit-based system that Missouri has had in place since the 1940s. The system is now called The Missouri Plan because it has been adopted in some form or fashion in more than 30 states.

SJR 51 would grant the Missouri governor control over the commission that selects the appellate judge candidates by granting control of four out of seven commissioners. In other words, the governor would have the power, through appointed commissioners, to select our appellate judges. We once had a system like this in place. Before the Missouri Plan was adopted in 1940, the Pendergast political machine controlled the judiciary’s appointments. Rejecting the results of that system, the Missouri Plan has eliminated politics from the judicial selection system, as much as possible, thereby fostering a strong, independent judiciary that has served the citizens of Missouri well for more than 70 years.

The legislature is likely to take up SJR 51 at any time. This Law Day 2012 – observed May 1 in Springfield – take some time to understand the issues impacting our judiciary. And always support keeping the third separate-but-equal branch of our government strong and healthy. It matters to our businesses and to us as individuals.

Brett Roubal is a partner at Baird, Lightner, Millsap & Harpool Attorneys at Law and chairman of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association’s 2012 Law Day committee. He may be reached at broubal@blmhpc.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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