The Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan: A Plan that Keeps the Influence of Politics and Money Out of the Court System

During the 1930s, the public became increasingly dissatisfied with the increasing role of politics in judicial selection and judicial decision-making. Judges were plagued by outside influences due to the political aspects of the election process, and dockets were congested due to time the judges spent campaigning. In November of 1940, voters amended the Missouri constitution by adopting the “Nonpartisan Selection of Judges Court Plan,” which was placed on the ballot by initiative petition. The adoption of the plan resulted from a public outcry against the widespread abuses of the judicial system by a political machine in Kansas City and by the political control exhibited by wards in St. Louis.

The Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, commonly called the Missouri Plan, has served as a national model for the selection of judges. More than thirty other states have based all or part of their judicial selection system on the Missouri Plan. The Plan provides for the selection of judges based on merit rather than on political affiliation. All of the judges on the Supreme Court of Missouri and the Missouri Court of Appeals are selected under the Nonpartisan Court Plan. The Plan also includes circuit and associate circuit judges in the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, Jackson, Clay, Platte and Greene Counties.

The current method used in Missouri reduces the role of politics in the selection and election of judges. Under this method of selecting judges, it is whoever is the most qualified candidate that is selected, not the candidate who is the best politician. Judges chosen under the Nonpartisan Court Plan don’t find themselves presiding over cases brought by attorneys who gave them campaign contributions. In Missouri, our judges owe their allegiance to the law, not to politicians or to special interest groups.

Under the current structure, the Appellate Judicial Commission is made up of one Missouri Supreme Court judge, three lawyers elected by members of the Missouri Bar, and three non-lawyers appointed by the governor to staggered terms. When a judicial vacancy occurs, the Commission takes applications and chooses three nominees. The governor must pick from among those three. The judges eventually face retention votes in general elections. After their first 12 months in office, nonpartisan appointed judges must be retained by voters in a majority vote. A similar retention election occurs at the end of each judicial term of office. If a judge does not receive a majority of votes, the judicial office will become vacant at the end of the term.

The Missouri Legislature has voted to place a constitutional amendment on the November 6, 2012 ballot that will give the governor much more control over the selection process. Under the proposed amendment, the governor would gain the power to appoint four of the seven commissioners who choose nominees for the Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court. Currently, the governor appoints three of the seven. Under the amendment, the governor would assume a much larger role, appointing two commissioners immediately after taking office and two additional members midway through the governor’s four-year term. The Constitution no longer would prevent those appointees from being lawyers. Also, the Supreme Court would lose its voting position on the commission. Instead, one retired appellate judge would serve as a non-voting adviser.

The Missouri Bar Association, present and former Missouri Supreme Court judges appointed by both Democrat and Republican governors and many other civic organizations warn against altering Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan.

A fair and impartial judiciary is essential to democracy and protects our rights under the Constitution. Judges consider only the facts and the law, not politics. Everyone has a right to a fair and impartial justice system. We must defend our courts from those who attempt to influence them. Changing the Missouri Plan threatens the current fairness and impartiality of our courts.