Our Opinion: Group opposes weakening of judicial branch

News Tribune editorial

Courts decide divisive issues.

In an ironic twist, voters in November will decide a divisive proposal to alter Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan.

Opponents of the proposed changes organized last week as Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts. The group is headed by six former state Supreme Court chief justices.

The group is encouraging Missourians not to alter the plan approved by voters in 1940 as a process to select judges for the state supreme, appellate and selected circuit courts.

Here’s how the plan works. The governor selects a judge from a slate of nominees advanced by a selection panel. The seven-member panel for the appeals and Supreme Court vacancies includes: a supreme court judge (usually the chief justice); three non-lawyer citizens appointed by the governor every other year, to serve six-year staggered terms; and three lawyers, elected every other year by members of the Missouri Bar in their region, also to serve six-year staggered terms.

Changes proposed by lawmakers advanced by slim majorities in both chambers and will appear on the November ballot.

The changes include: Replacing the high court judge with a non-voting retired judge; increasing the number of governor-appointed citizens from three to four; and allowing the governor to appoint all four citizen members during the four-year term, rather than naming only one member every other year. The lawyers’ elections wouldn’t change.

Those changes are significant, according to amendment supporters, united as Better Courts for Missouri.

The amendment will “break the monopoly that trial attorneys and interest groups have on the selection of judges,” according to Rich Chrismer, a spokesman for the group. He added the amendment would allow “the people to exercise more accountability through our elected governor.”

A counter argument, advanced by former Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr., is the existing plan “tries to impose checks and balances and moderates the type of people (on the panel) to keep them away from politics and bigmoney contributions as best we can.”

We believe that Price and fellow opponents of the amendment have the stronger argument.

Checks and balances are functions of the three separate but equal branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial.

The amendment would transfer power to the governor, thereby strengthening the executive branch and weakening the judicial branch.

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