Missouri Bar committees recommend all 50 non-partisan judges on November ballot
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Missouri Bar committees recommend all 50 non-partisan judges on November ballot

Date: September 25, 2014
By: Jill Ornitz
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SJR 51

JEFFERSON CITY - A group of committees sponsored by the Missouri bar have recommended all 50 of the nonpartisan judges up for retention in November be retained.

The Missouri Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees evaluated judges across the state under the nonpartisan court plan which was created in 1940. Each judge was evaluated by one of seven committees, which are comprised of both lawyers and non-lawyers.

The committees evaluated judges based on a number of criteria, including ratings from lawyers, written opinions from other judges and jurors' ratings of some trial judges.

"As president of the Missouri Bar, I can tell you we have an important job and we take that job very seriously," said Reuben Shelton, president of the state bar during a press conference held Wednesday, Sept. 24. "This is the job of getting recommendations and information to the voters of Missouri."

Dale Doerhoff, the statewide coordinator of these committees, discussed how the so-called Missouri Plan set an example for other states in regard to non-partisan court appointments.

"When the people of Missouri adopted the non-partisan court plan in 1940, the purpose was to free our appellate courts and metropolitan trial courts from the grip of special interests," Doerhoff said. "In the 74 years since its creation, the nonpartisan court plan has achieved that purpose. In fact, it's become a model for the country adopted in over 30 states."

Critics of the "Missouri Plan" take issue with its distortion of checks and balances within the three branches of government.

"What has happened in the evolution of the Non-Partisan Court Plan is that we've lost the proper check of the other branches on the judicial branch of government," said former St. Louis County Sen. Jim Lembke.

Lembke has been a long-term critic of the non-partisan court plan arguing it gave lawyers too much power over the selection of judges.

"Currently, the Missouri Bar...has too much power," Lembke said in 2008.

Four years later, Lembke won legislative approval for a plan to expand the number of members the governor would select for the commissions that nominate candidates for non-partisan court positions for judicial appointments ultimately made by the governor.

Lembke's proposal was defeated overwhelmingly on the November 2012 ballot.

While all 50 judges received recommendations for retention from the committee, not all of them were free of controversy. St. Louis City Circuit Associate Judge Barbara Peebles was suspended in 2012 with pay and again in 2013 without pay after a report revealed she had handed off work to a clerk, was frequently late and removed a court document and later destroyed it.

"The committee was troubled by these proceedings but was heavily influenced by the fact that the Supreme Court, after an extensive hearing, felt that there was not cause to remove Judge Peebles from office," read Peebles' evaluation. "The committee concluded that, in view of this finding, if the Supreme Court did not find cause to remove Judge Peebles, then we would not recommend that she not be retained."

Lembke charged Peebles' retention recommendation shows a "deficiency in the system."

"It certainly speaks to the idea that this system protects their own," Lembke said.

Doerhoff pointed to St. Louis City Associate Circuit Judge Judy Draper as a testament to the success of the program. He said that Draper was not recommended for retention in 2010 but was retained by voters. Since then, Draper's scores have improved in every measured category.

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

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