COLUMBIA, Mo. (CN) - In an attempt to ward off partisan election of judges, Missouri's chief justice announced changes to the way many Missouri judges are chosen. They include making public judicial interviews held by the nonpartisan nominating commission; making public the number of votes received by the three successful nominees who are forwarded for the governor's consideration; and encouraging members of the public to nominate qualified candidates.
The changes are meant to open the selection process to the public.
Judges for the Missouri Supreme Court, appeals courts and circuit courts in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield are chosen by the governor, who selects a judge from a list of three candidates submitted by the nominating commission.
The process is intended to ensure that judges are chosen on merit, without much influence from the Legislature or governor.
But opponents have criticized the transparency of the process, because the nominating commissions have met in private. Some opponents have touted partisan elections to replace the commissions.
Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr., in a speech to the Missouri Bar, said partisan elections could destroy the independence of the judicial branch.
"Last year I spoke about the assault on our courts by various special interest groups, many well-intentioned, but so focused on their own special causes and their own ideologies that they miss the damage they will cause if they turn our courts into just another arena for the political battles that divide our country," Price said.
"Those political and ideological battles cannot be avoided. It is our strength as a democracy to allow the full debate and resolution of those issues before and by the people. But that is a process for political leaders to be pursued in the legislative and executive branches of government. It is not a process to be confused with the fair and just resolution of individual disputes, each case according to its own evidence, each case according to the law."
Price mentioned "clear-the-bench" efforts in Colorado and Iowa as problems in a partisan election system. He pointed out that judicial campaign fund raising has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
"Big money in judicial elections is a scandal," Price said.
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