By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - With his term atop Missouri's judiciary ending, Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. warned Thursday that the courts are facing increased political and financial pressures that are straining their core functions of dispensing justice and resolving disputes.
Price, Missouri's longest-serving current Supreme Court member, is to be succeeded Friday as chief justice by Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman. Missouri's top judicial spot rotates every two years among the seven members of the state Supreme Court. Price plans to remain on the court.
In an interview Thursday with media outlets, Price said several years of tight state budgets have caused the court system to cut back on personnel and to sacrifice long-term efforts such court computerization projects to meet the short-term needs of simply running the courts.
For the annual state budget that takes effect Friday, Gov. Jay Nixon already has cut $6 million from the $170 million in general revenues allotted for the courts, which the governor's budget office said would leave the judiciary with the same level of funding as this past year.
Price said he understands the need for all branches of government to share in budget cuts. But "one challenge is to deal with efficiency without losing the sense of individual justice that people expect when they come to a court," Price said.
He added: "I have frustration on the level of funding for the courts, for the public defenders, for the prosecutors - for everything we do."
Price also expressed concern about "political challenges" to the judiciary that "seem to be growing more intense."
During the past several years, critics of Missouri's judicial selection process have pushed bills in the Legislature and filed initiative petition proposals that would alter or abolish the current system in which appellate and city trial judges are nominated by special panels and then appointed by the governor.
During Price's tenure as chief justice, the courts have responded by opening more parts of the selection process to the public. It February 2010, the judiciary began releasing the names of applicants for judicial vacancies. Later that year, Price announced that nominating commissions would allow the public to observe the interviews of prospective judges and to learn the panels' votes. He said at the time that the changes were driven partly by polls showing public support for a more open nomination process.
"I would hope that satisfies many of the good-faith concerns people have about it," Price said Thursday.
Price was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Republican Gov. John Ashcroft in 1992 and was retained for 12-year terms in "yes" or "no" elections in 1994 and 2006. He also served as chief justice from 1999 to 2001 and has emphasized alternative sentencing models such as drug courts that divert offenders from prison to treatment programs.
By the time his current term ends, Price would be nearing Missouri's mandatory judicial retirement age of 70. Price said Thursday that it might be time for Missouri to consider raising that retirement age to 75 - a move which he said could save the state money by not having to simultaneously pay a judge's retirement benefits and a replacement's salary.
Teitelman, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in 2002, issued a statement praising Price as an "extraordinary chief justice for Missouri." But unlike most other incoming chief justices, Teitelman did not meet with the media. Court spokeswoman Beth Riggert said Teitelman did not want to take attention away from Price's departure as chief justice.
David A. Lieb can be reached at: http://twitter.com/DavidALieb