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The political feud between opponents of “judicial activism” and proponents of “impartial courts” that inundated last year’s judicial elections has landed in Missouri, where a battle for a state Supreme Court seat has threatened the state’s venerable nomination process. In recent weeks, two new special interest groups have taken opposing sides over the process by which judges are selected in Missouri for the state Supreme Court and appellate courts, and for circuit courts in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. The nomination process, called the “Missouri Plan,” has been adopted in more than 30 states. One group, the Adam Smith Foundation, alleges that the state’s selection process is rife with political cronyism and should be open to the public. In a similar vein, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt has sought documentation relating to the process by which members of the selection commission chose recent nominees. Another group, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, has defended the selection system as preferable to elections, which have become increasingly partisan in recent years. “We stand at an interesting point in history where the Missouri Plan is under direct attack in its own state,” said Jesse Rutledge, communications director of Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan group in Washington that tracks judicial elections. Ties to trial lawyers? In Missouri, the selection commission is composed of seven temporary members: three lawyers selected by members of The Missouri Bar, three laypeople appointed by the governor, and the chief justice of Missouri. The commission sends three nominees to the governor. The battle over a Missouri Supreme Court seat began last month, when Judge Ronnie White resigned. “The creation of dueling interest groups shows that this is certainly a more serious situation and one that is going to be more politically active for the next year or so than what we’ve seen,” Rutledge said. The Adam Smith Foundation, which was created in June, claims to promote “conservative principles” that include “working to restrain activist judges,” according to its Web site.. Earlier this month, the foundation issued a press release accusing the majority of the members of the selection commission of having ties to the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers. Tom Shupe Jr., treasurer of the foundation, declined to comment on the release, but noted that the lawyers on the commission would suffer from tort reform. “It appears there’s a problem with the current system,” he said. He declined to identify specific alternatives, but emphasized that the foundation wants to open the judicial-selection process to the public. “We don’t believe most Missourians know how our Supreme Court justices are picked,” he said. The governor, Blunt, has echoed those concerns in recent weeks in accusing the commission’s members of withholding information about the nominees. He is seeking background checks and law school transcripts of the nominees, and has submitted his own questionnaires. Calls to Blunt’s office seeking comments were not returned. The governor must select a judge within 60 days of receiving the list of nominees. If he rejects all of them, the commission appoints a judge. Either way, legislative proposals to change the selection process are anticipated to emerge in next year’s session, said Edward “Chip” Robertson, a partner in the Jefferson City, Mo., office of Bartimus, Frickleton, Robertson & Gorny who helped found Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts about a month ago. Legislators already proposed several failed alternatives earlier this year that included a nomination process more akin to the federal system, he said. Robertson’s group claims to protect the Missouri Plan “from attacks by a small group of politicians and special interest groups,” according to its Web site. He noted that the courts are not required under law to reveal the details of how judges are selected. The real issue, he said, is that Blunt chose only one of the three members appointed by his office to serve on the selection commission; his Democratic predecessor chose the others.

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