Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan, commonly known as The Missouri Plan, turns 76 years old Nov. 5. In the more than three-quarters of a century since its creation, the plan has served as a model for other states and has been adopted by Missouri voters to apply to trial court judges in additional Missouri circuits. Above all, it has worked to attract high-quality judges in the least political way while giving voters the final say.
As Missourians head to the polls to vote Nov. 8, The Missouri Plan will once again be in action. This year, there are 48 judges up for retention across Missouri ballots – from associate circuit court judges to a Supreme Court of Missouri judge. That means every Missouri voter has the opportunity to vote in a judicial retention election. To help make sure voters are informed, an independent committee reviews nonpartisan judges selected through the Missouri Plan on everything from written opinions to how lawyers and jurors rate a judge’s courtroom performance and demeanor. The committee’s findings are then made available to the public prior to an election.
The Missouri Plan’s process has many advantages. First, because nominations for judicial openings are based on merit, Missourians are assured that highly qualified individuals are selected for nonpartisan judicial positions. Second, each judge remains accountable to the citizens they serve because citizens have the opportunity to decide whether a judge remains on the bench after the first 12 months they serve and at the end of each term. Third, voters are able to decide a judge’s fate based on that judge’s record – not unsubstantiated allegations contained in an opponent’s political rhetoric or advertising.
Although the plan is not without its critics, it has stood the test of time, garnered rave reviews and endorsements, and grown to be a significant leader in the way judicial selection works across the nation. In fact, more than 30 states have adopted it in one form or another since its founding by Missouri voters in 1940.
Still, The Missouri Plan’s roots are humble. In the 1930s, corruption and greed ran rampant in judicial decision-making. Elections were greatly influenced by “political machines” that controlled the ballot box through fraud, manipulation and even violence. Many believed that the system was in need of an overhaul, and, in 1937, a movement for change began. By 1940, a bipartisan committee called the Missouri Institute for the Administration of Justice developed a proposal for a merit selection process. On Nov. 5, 1940, Missouri voters adopted the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan to keep politics and money out of our state’s high courts.
For many years, evaluations were conducted at the local level with committees either recommending or not recommending that a judge be retained. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Missouri modified this practice to instead have a 21-member statewide panel review judges and determine if a judge substantially meets overall judicial performance standards. Findings from the 2016 review process are available at yourmissourijudges.org.
The Missouri Plan was created to work for Missourians. As the 2016 general election draws closer, celebrate the plan’s creation and how it still continues to work for you by staying informed about the judges appearing on your ballot.