Court Plan hits full steam in Greene County

December 25, 2023
Court Plan hits full steam in Greene County

In 2008, Greene County voters adopted the Nonpartisan Court Plan to choose their local judges. Fifteen years later, the transformation of the Greene County Circuit Court is complete.

Since last year, the final group of judges who had once been elected under partisan labels — Calvin Holden, Thomas Mountjoy, Jason Brown, David Jones, Mark Powell and Michael Cordonnier — have retired. As of August, when Derek Ankrom was appointed to fill Cordonnier’s seat, every current member of the court began his or her judicial career under the Nonpartisan Court Plan.

Ankrom is among seven new judges to join the Greene County bench since last year, and several associate circuit judges have been promoted to the circuit level, resulting in a total of 11 vacancies filled since 2022.

For Joseph Passanise of Wampler & Passanise, who helped lead the 2008 campaign, the high level of interest in judicial positions and the quality of resulting bench has been gratifying, though not surprising.

“We take this so seriously because it has to work,” Passanise said. “We want it to work, and we want people engaged to see why this system is so much better than a partisan election.”

It’s also a result that, on the night of Nov. 4, 2008, seemed very much in doubt. At the time, it had been 35 years since a Missouri county had opted into the Court Plan. Greene County is at the heart of southwestern Missouri, one of the state’s most conservative areas.

“This wasn’t a campaign where you could just mail a pamphlet,” Passanise said. “This was truly a grassroots efforts involving a number of people in the community.”

A group opposing the plan outspent the pro-plan campaign by $100,000, and several prominent Republican leaders — including then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Springfield native, and former Missouri governor and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft — publicly opposed it.

Yet the measure passed with 51.8 percent of the vote.

“We had the governor against us, we had the recently former attorney general and former governor against us, in a heavily Republican county,” said Chip Sheppard of Carnahan Evans, who co-led the campaign with Passanise. The narrow win, he said, “surprised everyone.”

Prior to the 2008 election, Greene County judges, like the vast majority of trial-level judges in Missouri, ran in contested elections under partisan labels. Sheppard, who went to law school in Texas, where judges continue to be elected at all levels, said such elections make no sense.

“It’s just a battle of who has the nicest looking family and the best gun standing in front of a tractor and looking friendly,” he said.

In contrast, the Nonpartisan Court Plan requires judicial hopefuls to be vetted by county-level commissions consisting of two lawyers, two non-lawyers and the chief judge of the Court of Appeals district interviews candidates and selects three finalists. (A similar seven-member Appellate Judicial Commission chooses panels for the appellate courts and the Supreme Court.)

The governor then has 60 days to pick one of the three for the judgeship. Those judges have to stand periodically for retention, which allows voters to remove them from the bench. But they are not identified with a party and do not face an opponent — meaning they no longer have to raise money to run television ads in Missouri’s third largest city.

Missouri adopted the plan in 1940 as the nation’s first merit selection system for judges. It initially applied to the Missouri Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the circuit courts of Jackson County and the city of St. Louis. St. Louis County adopted it in 1970, and Clay and Platte counties followed in 1973.

At the time Greene County made the switch, it’s nine judges comprised five Republicans and four Democrats. Those judges were grandfathered in as nonpartisan judges and later stood for retention. No Greene County judges have been removed under the plan, and surveys sponsored by The Missouri Bar at retention time have consistently showed the circuit’s judges to be among the most highly rated in the state.

Cordonnier was among the last judges elected under the partisan system; he was appointed to the court in early 2008 to fill an unexpired term and was elected as a Republican to a full term as a circuit judge in 2008 — the same election in which the court plan was adopted.

“It certainly allows the governor to select from people who have already been vetted by the judicial selection commission, and it obviates the need to raise money for election,” Cordonnier said in an interview. “Most of the money raised for judicial elections is raised from lawyers. Without doing that, I think it’s an overall good thing.”

Brown, another of the recently retired judges, agreed. He first was appointed to the court as an associate judge in 2005 by Gov. Bob Holden and ran for election in 2006 as a Democrat — a designation he said he chose because it matched that of the governor who appointed him and was glad to drop following the 2008 election. Gov. Jay Nixon named him to the circuit bench in 2015.

“I’m a strong opponent of party designations for judges, even if it is a contested election,” Brown said. “I think that just misleads and misinforms the public and is antithetical to a judge’s job, as opposed to a legislator’s job, for instance.”

Judge Jerry Harmison Jr., who is now Greene County’s presiding judge, was appointed to the court as an associate judge in 2017 and elevated to the circuit bench last year. Having judges chosen under a rigorous but non-adversarial process rather than in expensive and sometimes bitter elections, he said, has made for a more collegial bench.

“The Nonpartisan Court Plan developed friendships, not enemies,” he said.

featured with permission of Missouri Lawyers Media


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