Greene County Could Benefit From Non-Partisan Judicial Selection
You may have heard there will be an election this November. Alongside trivial votes, such as who to choose for president, residents of Greene County will decide whether to adopt Missouri’s non-partisan court plan for their jurisdiction. Under the proposed change, Greene County judges would be selected by Missouri’s governor from a panel of three chosen by a judicial commission, rather than by popular election. The new commission would consist of the county’s chief judge, two citizens selected by the governor, and two lawyers elected by the county bar association.
This method of judicial selection is used for all of the state’s Supreme Court and appellate judges, as well as the judges for five circuits serving large cities and counties in Missouri. A recent study by the Show-Me Institute shows that adoption of this type of non-partisan court plan provides a better environment for economic performance and growth.
The “Missouri Plan,” as the system is known — because Missouri was the first state to adopt such a format — has been subsequently adopted, in various forms, by 25 other states. However, the plan has recently been the subject of much controversy here at home. In particular, some critics have accused the appellate commission — which selects the panels for openings to the state’s highest courts — of gaming the selection process by providing a panel consisting of one person that the commission supports and two others that they know would be unacceptable to the governor. There is much truth in these accusations, but the overall history of the plan, as well as its current operations in the local circuits, has been far less controversial. The Missouri Plan has served our state well by reducing the level of partisan politics in judicial selections.
In May, the Show-Me Institute released a study, “Is the ‘Missouri Plan’ Good for Missouri? The Economics of Judicial Selection,” by professors Joshua Hall and Russell Sobel. The study compared the various methods of judicial selection used in each state to that state’s legal quality ranking, as measured by the Institute for Legal Reform. The ILR ranks all 50 states every year according to results from a survey of attorneys representing large corporations. While the rankings are admittedly biased toward the interests of big business, this also serves as a formidable counterweight to the oft-heard charges that the Missouri Plan unfairly benefits trial lawyers.
The results of Hall’s and Sobel’s study are unambiguous: States that use some variant of the Missouri Plan’s merit-based system of judicial selection rank higher in terms of overall legal quality, according to the ILR survey, than states that elect their judges in either partisan or non-partisan races. Partisan elections, like those in Greene County, rank the lowest, by a significant margin.
The implications for Greene County are clear. The Hall and Sobel study presented economic findings that a legal system’s quality matters for economic growth, and although the paper focuses on statewide judicial selection plans, the hallmarks of a good statewide environment for business also apply at the county level. Respect for property rights, reliable enforcement of contracts, market-friendly laws, and fair juries are the foundations of a healthy business environment at any level of government. Positive efforts and statewide reforms, such as tort reform, can only go so far if the rulings of local elected judges are subject to electoral pressures.
The proposed judicial selection changes for Greene County should not be interpreted as an attack on the county’s current elected judges. In fact, eliminating the factor of partisan elections will relieve those judges of external pressures. If the non-partisan selection system is implemented, sitting judges will be maintained in office, subject to the people’s future retention votes.
The study by Hall and Sobel shows that selection systems with appointed judges correlates with generally improved environments for business and economic growth. In the long run, this change will benefit the people of Greene County by helping to ensure that the county remains a healthy environment for the free market to flourish.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.