Bill seeks to mandate recusal by appointed judges

Opponents say rules already handle issue, elected judges being ignored

State Sen. Brad Lager told colleagues Monday some Missourians worry that they won’t get a fair hearing in court, if one of the parties or lawyers in the case helped that judge get his or her job.

Lager, R-Savannah, wants to pass a law requiring judges who are appointed to the bench under the state’s Nonpartisan Court Plan to take themselves out of any case when any attorney or party to the case served on the commission that nominated that judge to the governor for the appointment.

His bill would affect all Supreme Court and appeals court judges, as well as trial court judges in St. Louis City and St. Louis, Jackson, Clay, Platte and Greene counties.

It would not affect Mid-Missouri’s trial court judges, who win their jobs in partisan elections.

Lager introduced a similar bill last year, and told the Senate’s Judiciary Committee that this year’s version included suggestions they made last year — when his proposal was heard by the Judiciary committee but never sent to the full Senate for debate.

“I was shocked at the number of calls I got, from lawyers who said, ‘Hey, that’s a really good idea,’” he testified of last year’s bill.

The nominating commissions have an equal number of non-lawyer citizens appointed by the governor and lawyers elected by Missouri Bar members.

And they also have one judge — who, by law, must be a lawyer — serving on the commission.

“We’re allowing a majority of lawyers to pick the judges,” Lager said, “and in some situations, those could be the same lawyers who practice in front of the judges.

“What I propose is to have a fair and impartial court, where we both have the same opportunity — regardless of who your lawyer is or my lawyer is.”

Lager likened the process to having “the CEOs of the utilities pick the members of the Public Service Commission, but not telling the consumer groups we’re letting that happen.”

No one testified in support of his bill.

The idea drew opposition from the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers and the Missouri Bar.

Former Sen. David Klarich represented the first two lawyer groups.

“The language is flawed … for a number of reasons,” he said. “I understand (Lager’s) concern with the Nonpartisan Court Plan. This language has a glaring omission.”

It doesn’t demand the same automatic recusal by elected judges “who have huge contributors” to their election campaigns, he said.

“But it’s your obligation, I assume, as a judge to recuse yourself,” Klarich said, “although, once again, this language is silent on that issue.”

Eric McManus, Missouri Bar vice president, told the committee that the Supreme Court’s ethics rules already require judges to recuse themselves if there’s an appearance they might be biased.

“The judges I’ve seen in our state have, quickly, done so,” he said.

And, he said, the Bar’s Board of Governors believes Lager’s bill violates two different constitutional requirements.

Like Klarich, he also questioned the bill’s failure to include elected judges.

“They can take contributions from practicing attorneys,” he said. “That would be a worse situation than the situation we’re dealing with (with appointed judges).”

Lager declined to “talk about specific cases” that prompted the bill.

He said he understood the lawyers groups are protecting the current system, but added: “We are a government that is accountable to the people.”

The committee took no action on the bill Monday.

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