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Will Greene County voters change the way they choose judges?

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The last item on Greene County ballots Nov. 4 will ask voters whether they support a new - and purportedly less political - way of choosing circuit court judges.

The so-called Nonpartisan Court Plan is already used to select judges for the Missouri Supreme Court and Court of Appeals as well as circuit courts in St. Louis and Kansas City. Greene County is the largest judicial jurisdiction in Missouri that hasn't adopted the idea, also known as the Missouri Plan.

Nearly 70 years ago, Missouri -voters responding to political corruption amended the state Constitution to become the first state to establish a "nonpartisan judicial commission" to vet judicial applicants and recommend three nominees to the governor. Since then, 35 other states have adopted the plan in some form or another.

Pushing the envelope

Earlier this year, more than 16,000 registered voters in Greene County signed a petition to have the Nonpartisan Court Plan placed on the November ballot, where it appears as Question 1.

Proponents say the nonpartisan plan would build public trust in Greene County's judiciary because judges would be selected via a merit-based system devoid of political affiliation or campaign contributions.

Those who oppose the plan, however, have criticized it from various angles. Some have suggested that political influence has had little effect on Greene County judges elected under the current setup. Others question whether voters should hand over control to a commission comprised of two county residents, two Missouri Bar attorneys and the chief judge of the Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals. Under the plan, voters would later decide whether to retain sitting judges based on evaluation surveys completed by attorneys and made available to the public.

A Jefferson City group called Better Courts for Missouri has been the most critical of the Missouri Plan as it applies to state and local judges. According to its Web site, www.newmoplan.com, the group seeks more openness into how commissions nominate judges under Missouri's Sunshine Law and make those who serve on the commission more accountable.

On the other side of the aisle, Greene Countians for Fair and Impartial Judges is working to build support for the nonpartisan plan. But member Morey Mechlin said that educating voters about the topic hasn't been easy.

"When you just say the Nonpartisan Court Plan, that doesn't have top-of-mind awareness," she said. "It's not like Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey. We all know what that is."

Mechlin said results of a poll conducted by her group - online at www.yesforquestion1.org - about six months ago were mixed.

"Most people have no awareness of the plan, but when you explain it to them the acceptance and the support goes up to almost 70 percent across all demographics," she said.

Mechlin hopes voters will ultimately choose to support the proposed court plan, which has been endorsed by the Greene County Commission, League of Women Voters, Greater Springfield Area Central Labor Council and Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. Recently retired Greene County Circuit Judge J. Miles Sweeney also has been publicly urging voters to support the plan.

Not all attorneys agree

The Springfield Bar Association has polled a sample of its membership twice since 2003 to gauge general attitudes about local adoption of the Missouri Plan, said Executive Director Crista Hogan.

Of 256 bar members who participated in the November 2003 poll, 63 percent said Greene County should implement the plan, Hogan said. The second poll - conducted via e-mail in October 2007 - asked 220 bar members the same question, and 76 percent favored the plan locally.

Two bar members on either side of the issue are Gary Cunningham, a trial attorney with Lathrop & Gage LC, and Charlie Cowherd, a business litigation and commercial law attorney with Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP.

Cunningham said he doesn't consider himself a staunch opponent of the Nonpartisan Court Plan, but he remains unconvinced that Greene County should follow the lead of other jurisdictions.

"I'm of the school that if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "Greene County has had excellent representation on the bench. ... If we had some clinkers up there that were absolutely selling justice, you'd hear me screaming from the mountaintop. But it hasn't been true."

Cowherd said he's heard plenty of complaints about politics influencing Greene County courts, and he suggested that many attorneys have played active roles in helping elect the judges they routinely appear before.

"I do think it's problematic to have judges that are soliciting campaign contributions from attorneys," he said. "I think if I were on the opposite of a case where my opponent is heavily in the judge's campaign for election, I'd be concerned about it."

Cowherd said he thinks the increased cost of running campaigns has upped the ante in judicial elections and deterred many local attorneys from seeking judgeships. On the practical side, he said attorneys seeking office run the risk of destroying their practices.

Attorneys will always influence the selection of judges, said Cowherd, who suggested that a commission-based approach is the best way to minimize political influence and maintain public trust in the courts.

Cunningham, though, cautioned voters about moving to the proposed court plan. "The nice thing about elections - with the campaign finance laws - is it's transparent," he said. "You at least know who is giving money. ... You take this process to the back room, you lose transparency."[[In-content Ad]]

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