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Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan

Missouri’s method for selecting all appellate judges and some circuit court judges is known as the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan. Missouri’s original constitution modeled the federal selection process, with the governor nominating someone for judge and the Missouri Senate either rejecting or confirming the nomination. This changed in the 1850s, when Missourians began electing all of their judges.

During the 1930s, there was a lot of public concern over the role of politics in judicial elections, especially the influence of political machines in Kansas City and St. Louis. Not only were judges influenced by campaign donors, their dockets were congested due to the time that they spent campaigning. In November 1940, voters amended the Missouri Constitution by adopting the current Non-Partisan Court Plan.

This plan provides for the selection of judges based on merit rather than on political affiliation. Initially, the plan applied to judges of the Supreme Court, the court of appeals and the circuit courts of St. Louis City and Jackson County. (In smaller counties, campaigns were less costly and it was easier for people to know who was running for judge and, therefore, easier for the electorate to decide if a candidate would make a good judge.) In the 1970s, voters extended the plan to judges in St. Louis, Clay and Platte counties, and in 2008, to Greene County.

The selection process for a judge begins when a commission reviews judicial applications, interviews candidates and selects a panel of the three most qualified candidates. For the Supreme Court and courts of appeals, the commission is composed of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, three lawyers elected by The Missouri Bar and three citizens selected by the governor. The circuit court commissions are composed of the chief judge of the court of appeals district in which the circuit is located, plus two lawyers elected by the bar and two citizens selected by the governor. The commissions send three names to the governor, who has 60 days to appoint one of the three panelists. If the governor does not select one of these three panelists within the 60-day timeline, then the selection of the new judge goes back to the commission.

The nonpartisan plan gives voters a voice in the selection of judges. Once a judge has served in office for at least one year, that judge must stand for a retention election at the next general election. The judge’s name is placed on a separate judicial ballot, without political party designation, and voters decide whether to retain the judge based on his or her judicial record.

An evaluation process helps inform voters about the performance of judges up for retention. Lawyers and jurors participate in a judicial evaluation survey in which they rate those judges about whom they have personal and direct knowledge. They evaluate judges on important characteristics such as fairness, legal analysis skills, diligence and decisiveness. The Judicial Performances Evaluation surveys and recommendations are published at www.YourMissouriJudges.org.

This information was prepared and distributed as part of the Missouri Press Association’s Newspapers in Education program.

Click here to download a PDF version of the material.

Millie Aulbur is The Missouri Bar’s director of Citizenship Education. Her primary work is developing materials and programs to assist and enhance the work of Missouri’s civics and government teachers.

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