Bench Memos

In Other News, Missouri Trial Lawyers Still Strong

The Missouri legislature is considering a constitutional amendment to modify the way judges in Missouri are selected. The legislation under consideration, sponsored by conservative Missouri Senator Jim Lembke, would significantly improve the judicial selection process by making some slight changes to the commission that nominates judges. Under the state’s current method of selection, known as the Missouri Plan, a seven-member commission sends the governor a list of three nominees from which he must select a judge to fill any appellate vacancy. The structure and left-wing dominance of the nominating commission (the distinctive feature of the Missouri Plan) has led many to argue that the state should amend the constitution to either directly elect judges or have them selected under something mirroring the advice/consent model set forth in the U.S. Constitution. 

The proposed constitutional amendment before the Missouri Senate falls short of either of those alternatives, but it would make some very important improvements. Primarily, it would increase the number of citizens who serve on the nominating commission and restagger the terms of those commissioners so that they would serve concurrently with the sitting governor. The governor’s judicial nominee would then go before the Missouri Senate, where the Senate would have the option to reject by a two-thirds vote. In short, whereas the balance of the authority over judicial selection currently resides in the unelected and left-leaning legal guild, these reforms would shift some authority to the chief executive and the legislature, in accordance with the principles articulated by the founding fathers in the debates over the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately the amendment is currently bottled up in the senate judiciary committee.  

I am told the Missouri Bar and the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys are exerting significant pressure to get the key Republican committee vote, Senator Bob Dixon, to kill it or at least dilute it to the point of meaninglessness. If it were to reach a vote on the floor the reformers expect broad support for an amendment, so the most efficient way for the Left to avoid having to mount a campaign against the amendment once it reaches the November ballot is to focus on allies in the committee. 

The Missouri Plan reform effort has grown significantly over the years. At the state level, in Missouri, supporters of reform include NFIB, Associated Industries of Missouri, Missouri’s Associated Builders and Contractors, Better Courts for Missouri, Missourians for Responsible Government, Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, the Missouri Family Network, Adam Smith Foundation, key tea-party leaders, the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, and many individual conservative leaders. Outside of Missouri, Missouri Plan reform has been endorsed by the national leaders of many of those same groups, in a number of Wall Street Journal editorials, and the topic is now a regular part of my conversations at meetings of center-right leaders.

The fact that this relatively moderate but important reform proposal may die in committee at the hands of a state senator from the most conservative region in the state, despite that laundry list of supporters, should demonstrate that the state’s trial lawyers have a choke-hold on policy relating to the state’s legal climate. I am hopeful that Senator Dixon will do the right thing and vote to put these important reforms before the people of Missouri. If the reformers are unsuccessful, however, I hope they will tell Missouri voters just how easy it has been for Senator Dixon to be co-opted by the state’s liberal special-interest groups.