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Man introduces 2 petitions for changes to judge selection

Missourians soon may be asked to sign petitions proposing to change the state Constitution’s requirements on how Supreme Court and appeals court judges are chosen.

John Elliott of Smithville submitted two proposed petitions to Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office last week.

If the petitions are approved for circulation, and the supporters get enough signatures in six of the state’s eight congressional districts, the proposed changes could be placed on the November 2014 ballot for statewide approval.

Both petitions propose to:

• Add two judges to the state Supreme Court, which has had seven judges since 1890.

• Cut the judges’ current, 12-year terms to eight years.

• Eliminate the 1940, voter-approved Nonpartisan Court Plan, also known as The Missouri Plan, replacing it with the direct election of all judges, in partisan political contests.

One proposal would have one Supreme Court judge elected from each of the state’s eight congressional districts, with a statewide election for the ninth judge.

The other proposal would elect three of the high court judges from each of the appeal’s court’s three districts — Western Missouri, which includes Cole, Callaway, Boone, Moniteau, Morgan and Miller counties; Eastern Missouri, which includes Osage and Gasconade counties; and southern Missouri, which includes Camden and Maries counties.

“The plan that we have now came about through the effort to take the power away from an individual, who, it was thought, had too much power in the process of selecting judges,” Elliott said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “We’re back to that same situation.”

Elliott, who is not a lawyer, said Tuesday he thinks lawyers have replaced 1930s Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast in controlling how judges are chosen.

“We’re at the point now where the (Missouri) Bar has become the special interest — so it’s the same issue that existed when it was changed before,” he said.

But the group Missourians for Fair and Independent Courts, which includes retired judges and “a broad coalition of community-based organizations,” issued a news release this week challenging the petitions before they even hit the streets.

“If approved, (the proposed amendment) would replace Missouri’s nonpartisan courts with partisan politics and unlimited campaign money in our courts,” the news release reported.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Holstein said: “In other states, it generally costs millions of dollars to run for the Supreme Court, but in Missouri it costs nothing ... because (Missouri) judges are selected based on their qualifications and then are either kept or thrown out by voters in a retention election where they are judged on their record on the bench.”

Elliott said that retention vote is after-the-fact and “we still have no input” on who’s chosen as a judge.”

If voters approve his amendment, Elliott said, “You can have full knowledge of who you’re voting for and who’s supporting that person, whereas (now) we really don’t know anything about who gets nominated.

“The process now is very closed.”

Elliott said he’s promoting the petitions as an individual, and doesn’t have any support, yet.

But millions of dollars are spent in election contests in states where judges are elected. retired Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. said.

“That kind of money is spent for influence, not good government,” he said in the MFIC news release. “Through these attacks on Missouri’s nonpartisan courts, people with power and money are trying to buy the Missouri judiciary and we, as Missourians, should stop them.”

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