Missouri voters need to know more about the judges they vote on, Supreme Court Judge George Draper III said Friday - and the Missouri Bar should be involved in that education effort.
During his luncheon address at the Bar's Fall Meeting, Draper wondered why retention rates for judges in the NonPartisan Court Plan have been falling in recent years.
He used St. Louis County as one example of a decline from "a high of 80 percent in 1968, to a steady decline to approximately 66 percent in 2012 and, probably, 59 percent for 2014," adding: "The public did not begin to lose confidence (in judges) until the late 1970s."
Under Missouri's NonPartisan Plan, people apply for judicial vacancies on the Supreme and appeals courts and on the trial-level courts in St. Louis City and St. Louis, Jackson, Clay, Platte and Greene counties.
The applications are reviewed by a panel that includes non-lawyers appointed by the governor and lawyers who are elected to the panel by Missouri Bar members.
The panel nominates three people to the governor, who appoints one to the vacancy.
After that person has served on the bench for at least one year, voters are given a chance to "retain" the judge in office for a full term.
In this year's Nov. 4 elections, Supreme Court judges Laura Denvir Stith and Paul C. Wilson received around 64 percent of the votes, while 36 percent of Missouri voters rejected their service.
Draper speculated that some of the falling numbers in retention elections over the last three decades were caused by the general, post-Watergate public "disillusionment" with government - including judges.
"I'm asking you to put your shoulders to the wheel and build a campaign," Draper told the Bar members, "to educate the public and the Bar, to be proud of Missouri lawyers and judges. ...
"Faith in the judiciary is reflective, and it reflects (public) faith in the profession," where many lawyers have faced recent economic belt-tightening because of the recession, as well as competition from do-it-yourself websites like LegalZoom.com.
In encouraging Bar members' participation in an education campaign, Draper said: "One person can make a difference."
Draper and Bar President Reuben Shelton are African Americans - and Draper noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had a new chief justice when it decided the school integration case in 1954.
"Had the position of chief justice of the United States Supreme Court not passed to another in Brown versus Board of Education, neither Reuben nor I might be here with you today," the judge said. "A single person can change an outcome - the work you do affects others."
Draper told reporters after the speech: "Many are voting (no on retention) because they don't know the judge and feel that society has taken a wrong turn.
"So, they're taking it out on an office, rather than having a full knowledge of the person."
Draper said the public could learn more about judges involved in elections, by inviting the judges "to come speak to them" at meetings of various organizations, "and get to know us - get to know who we are, what our thoughts are, what our background is."
Draper also noted Shelton's challenge to the Bar "for the year is to break down barriers and build bridges."
The legal community needs "to embrace the richness of all her members, and for seeing her members unifying more as one single community," Draper said.
But the "need for diversity" in the legal profession "is no longer debatable," he added, even though things are better today for minorities than in the past.
"The practice has been very different for me and my wife than it was for my father," Draper, who is African American, noted.
"And I think, and hope, that it will be better for my daughter, as her career as an attorney grows."