Like many boys growing up in the Kansas City area during the 1980s and 1990s, one of my childhood heroes was baseball great George Brett.
I wore a number 5 jersey. I played 3rd base (and then 1st base) on my little league baseball team. I even packed a wad of big league check bubble gum in my cheek. I – and most everyone else – knew that when George Brett was at the plate, anything could happen.
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson famously vowed never to pitch to George Brett when the game was on the line. Said Anderson, "I've always loved the way he played the game of baseball, and I also thought he was the most dangerous hitter I ever faced – certainly in the American League. Back with Cincinnati, I used to walk Giants' Willie McCovey all the time because he could just kill you. I thought I'd never treat another hitter that way, but I wound up doing it with George."
I loved the way George Brett played baseball. In my office, I have a signed bat, a couple of baseballs, helmet, hat, and even tickets from Brett's last game at Kaufman Stadium.
So what does George Brett have to do with a blog focused on legal and safety issues? Well, George Brett knows the critical importance of a fair umpire. When Johnson County, Kansas wanted to change the way its judges were selected in 2008, George Brett said this:
"Let's keep politics and money out of the courts. On the baseball field, all I want is a fair umpire. Umpires are like judges, and I don't want an umpire or judge who owes political favors to the other team."
In Missouri this year, a small group of special interests convinced the legislature to try and change the way Missouri appellate (and some trial) judges are selected that would inject politics and special interests into the courtroom. Anyone who – like George Brett – values a fair and independent judiciary who will decide cases on the facts and the law without being beholden to political favors or contributors should VOTE NO on Amendment 3.
The Importance Of An Independent Judiciary
An independent judiciary – a judiciary free of undue political influence, cronyism, and special interests – is the cornerstone and linchpin for our constitutional freedoms. Our freedom and liberty are threatened If cases are influenced by special interests and political influence instead of simply the facts and the law.
What is your remedy if someone violates your constitutional rights to free speech, to religious freedom, to keep and bear arms, to contract, etc.? These are civil law (or civil justice) claims in which you take the bad actor to court in order to have your rights protected.
What happens when the person violating your rights has a lobbying team? What happens when the person violating your rights has political influence? What happens when your rights might be affected not just by the constitution, but some political influence?
Judicial independence free from political cronyism and special interest influence is critical to protect our freedom, liberty and to limit excessive use of governmental powers.
How The Missouri Plan Works
The current plan – known as The Missouri Plan or The Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan – is based on independent merit-selection rather than political appointment or election. The Missouri Plan was enacted after Missouri citizens voted to amend the constitution in the 1940s. The Missouri Plan is one for the people and by the people. The Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan was adopted because citizens were fed up with political cronyism and politics in the courthouse. Namely, notorious "Boss Tom" Pendergast, who ran the Democratic Party in Missouri during the 1920s and 1930s, also controlled the judiciary.
Rush Limbaugh's grandfather — "the original" Rush Limbaugh — successfully led the citizen's initiative petition drive to end partisan control of the judiciary in favor of merit selection of judges. Under the Missouri Plan, appellate judges and trial judges in metropolitan counties electing to participate in the Missouri Plan, judges are selected by a commission consisting of 3 attorneys elected by members of the Missouri Bar Association; 3 citizen members appointed by the governor (serving 6-year staggered terms); and a currently sitting judge. The panel selects from those submitting applications themselves or nominated by others for the vacant position. The process has worked essentially the same way for more than 50 years and led the country as more than 30 other states have adopted the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan in one form or another.
Because of the Missouri Plan's more than 70 years of success, a broad coalition has formed in support of the Missouri Plan and to keep politics out of the courtroom. This coalition includes not only plaintiff trial lawyers (like me), but also defense lawyers, prosecutors, "biglaw" firms, small and solo practice attorneys, current and former Supreme Court judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors, and citizen groups including AARP Missouri, Committee for Economic Development and local Chambers of Commerce including the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
James Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce said:
"Partisan politics and campaign fundraising have no place in our judicial selection process. I make that statement both as head of Kansas City's largest regional business organization and as a longtime attorney."
"Under the Missouri Court Plan, the selection process is more likely to produce qualified and competent judges, leading to a more stable, efficient and consistent judicial system, a system on which the business community and the general public rely."
Proposed Changes To Missouri Plan Under Amendment 3
Despite the Missouri Court Plan's long history of success, well-funded special interests exerted enough control to put changes undoing the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan on the ballot this fall. The proposed change undoes the Nonpartisan plan by placing complete control of the nominating commission to a single-term governor. Missouri Lawyers Weekly described the changes this way:
From the start of the debate, it was clear there were rifts – even among senators of the same party – as to whether the proposal was a good idea. Several senators raised concerns that [the] proposal allows a governor to appoint two people when taking office and two in the middle of his term.
Currently, the lay members serve six-year staggered terms, so only a two-term governor would be able to appoint all three [lay] commissioners, and then only toward the end of his second term.
"I don't want a one-term governor to be able to pack the commission," said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan Supported By Public
Missouri citizens have a history of supporting the Missouri Court Plan — beginning with the citizen initiative to create the plan in the 1940s. Since then, the Missouri Plan has been expanded – most recently in 2008 when Green County (Springfield area) voted to replace election of local trial judges with merit selection under the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan. Numerous editorials have been written in support of the Missouri Court Plan and against the proposed changes that would insert politics into the courtroom.
According to the web site Justice At Stake, 71% of Missourians were happy with the current judicial selection system in a 2007 survey. Even more, 73%, wanted judges to be independent of elected officials like the governor and state legislature. Only 1-in-50 respondents saw changing the way judges are selected as a top priority for state government.*
A survey by the conservative Federalist Society that same year found 68% of respondents had trust and confidence that the Missouri Supreme Court based decisions on the law rather than on political beliefs.
An apolitical, independent judiciary comprised of qualified judges is critical to upholding the rule of law and individual rights of Freedom and Liberty. Fairness. Justice. Liberty. Rule of Law. These are not partisan issues. These are not Democratic vs. Republican issues. There is enough politics in the legislative and executive branches, we should keep politics out of our courts. Cases should be decided on the fact and the law, not by partisan politics funded by special interest groups.
How You Can Help
Visit The Missouri Plan to find out more about the plan and how you can support the nonpartisan, merit selection of judges. You can request a speaker to talk with your civic group, church, or other organization about the Missouri Plan. You can volunteer to speak to various groups about the Missouri Plan. You can also support the Missouri plan on Facebook and Twitter.
[More on the Missouri Court Plan]
(c) Copyright 2012 Brett A. Emison
Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.