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MO: Wording on judge appointment amendment to stay the same

By   /   September 11, 2012  /   No Comments

The ballot summary for Constitutional Amendment 3 will remain as originally written.

By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog

ST. LOUIS – A second ballot initiative summary penned by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan was upheld in court Tuesday.

Now voters must decide in November if they want to give the governor more authority appointing high court judges.

Both Carnahan’s office and opponents of the measure praised the ruling by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem that doesn’t change the original ballot wording of Constitutional Amendment 3.

“The secretary of state’s office has a legal obligation to provide Missourians with fair and sufficient summaries of ballot measures,” Carnahan said in a statement. “The judge’s decision supports our position that the summary drafted by our office meets that legal standard.”

Former Missouri Bar Association president Skip Walther, who leads a committee opposing the proposal, called the amendment “dangerous” because he said it further politicizes the process of judicial selection.

Skip Walther

“The last thing we need is for politicians to be in charge of this process,” he said.

The summary will read as follows on the ballot:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to change the current nonpartisan selection of supreme court and court of appeals judges to a process that gives the governor increased authority to:

  • appoint a majority of the commission that selects these court nominees; and
  • appoint all lawyers to the commission by removing the requirement that the governor’s appointees be non-lawyers?”

Amendment proponents sued because they say the wording is misleading.

James Harris

James Harris, executive director of Better Courts for Missouri, which filed the lawsuit, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

“Amendment 3 is a modest measure which will allow voters to decide if they want to increase public accountability and eliminate trial attorney special interests’ monopoly over judicial selection,” Harris said.  “However, the hopelessly biased ballot wording offered by Secretary Carnahan does not reflect this at all.”

The current nominating commission for the Missouri Supreme Court and Court of Appeals includes three members of the Missouri Bar Association, three gubernatorial appointees who cannot be members of the bar association and one Missouri Supreme Court judge. The proposal would give the governor a fourth appointee (replacing the judge), and would allow the gubernatorial appointees to be lawyers.

Better Courts for Missouri argues that the amendment gives Missouri residents more control over the appointing process by allowing the voter-elected governor more discretion. The group notes that Missouri is one of only seven states that allows a sitting judge to be involved in the process.

Under the current state court plan, the governor picks one of three finalists for these court positions who have been selected by the commission. The amendment will also increase the number of finalists to four.

Although the ruling went in Carnahan’s favor, Beetem agreed that the wording could have been better. He ruled, however, that the true test was whether the summary “reflects the legal and probable effects of the proposed amendment without bias, prejudice, deception or favoritism.”

“Governing case law requires this Court to afford great deference to Defendant’s summary statement, particularly when viewed through an aperture of no more than 50 words,” Beetem wrote.

Carnahan’s office noted this was the final roadblock to getting ballots ready to print for the Nov. 6 general election.

“With less than two weeks to go before the September 22 deadline for local election authorities to send ballots to military and overseas absentee voters, this is a positive development to avoid any delay in printing and mailing ballots to these voters,” Carnahan said.

However, an attorney representing the plaintiffs told the Kansas City Star he plans to appeal.

A previous challenge to Carnahan’s summary on a ballot initiative concerning a state health-care exchange resulted in the Democrats’ language being replaced by a new summary backed by top state Republicans.

Contact Johnny Kampis at johnny@missouriwatchdog.org. For more Missouri Watchdog updates, visit Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for a free newsletter

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Johnny Kampis is a content editor at Watchdog.org, and is helping to start the organization’s Alabama Watchdog bureau in his home state. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.