2 polls challenge voters’ support for judicial elections

Two polls — one of Missouri voters, the other a national view — report that voters overwhelmingly oppose having campaign donations and special-interest spending in judicial elections.

Both polls were taken this month by the 20/20 Insight polling firm — one for the group Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts (MFIC) and the other for the group Justice at Stake and for New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.

But James Harris — a Jefferson City consultant and lobbyist who in the past has supported proposals to change the way Missouri selects its top judges — this week questioned the poll results and said his own polling “for four years” shows that “Missourians have consistently expressed a desire to elect judges.”

Missourians next year may be asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment replacing the state’s Nonpartisan Court Plan with the direct election of judges.

Under the current plan, first approved by voters in 1940, the state’s Supreme and appeals court judges apply when there are vacancies and meet with a seven-member commission that nominates three people to the governor, who appoints one of the three to the vacancy.

Secretary of State Jason Kander on Oct. 2 approved two, slightly different, petitions proposing a constitutional amendment for elected judges. Supporters have until 5 p.m. May 4, 2014, to gather enough registered voters’ signatures to put the proposals onto the Nov. 4, 2014, general election ballot.

John Elliott of Smithville submitted the two proposals in August. He wasn’t available this week to comment for this story.

No other individual or group has said they will be helping circulate the petitions or promoting the changes to voters.

In addition to eliminating the Nonpartisan Plan that many around the country identify as the “Missouri Plan,” both petitions propose to add two judges to the state Supreme Court, which has had seven judges since 1890.

One of the approved petitions proposes to 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.

In its news release last week, MFIC said its telephone survey of 445 Missouri registered voters, on Oct. 10-11, found only 18 percent of them planned to vote yes on the proposed amendment if it reaches the ballot, while 58 percent planned to vote no.

The poll also showed that 85 percent of voters, including 79 percent who hold the position strongly, oppose allowing judicial candidates to solicit campaign contributions — especially from parties who may have business in front of the court.

“This poll confirms that Missourians still have no appetite for giving political parties or special interests greater power to pick Missouri judges,” Skip Walther, MFIC treasurer and former Missouri Bar president, said in the news release. “Missouri voters see right through these attempts by partisan machines and special interests to give themselves more power by injecting partisan politics and unlimited campaign money into our state’s highest courts.”

The national telephone poll of 1,200 registered voters, conducted Oct. 22-24, found that “an overwhelming number of voters believe campaign donations and other special interest spending on judicial elections have an influence on a judge’s decision on the bench,” Justice at Stake said in a news release on Tuesday.

Bert Brandenburg, the group’s executive director, said: “These numbers are the highest we’ve seen in years of polling on this question.

“Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe that campaign cash is affecting courtroom decisions. They’re worried that justice is for sale.”

Asked to comment, Harris said: “This was a less-than-scientific poll conducted with robo calls and utilizing very loaded wording. Clearly, they wanted the answer they got so they could use it to support their agenda.”

He said Justice at Stake is a long-time Missouri Plan supporter, and repeated previous arguments that “lawyers and special interest groups ... dominate judicial selection” under the plan.

“They hide behind platitudes about money in politics, but in truth they want to replace a transparent, accountable system with one that promotes behind-the-scenes corruption,” Harris said, noting his own polls “have consistently found that fewer than 1 in 4 Missourians support the Missouri Plan, as they do not think lawyers should have more influence over the judicial selection process.”

Laurie Kinney, a Justice at Stake spokeswoman, said: “These results are consistent with results that we and other organizations, using multiple pollsters, have found over the years.”

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