Patricia Breckenridge was sworn in this past week as Missouri’s newest supreme court justice. It was a pleasant event, even a bit ho-hum, considering it culminated months of bitter disagreement over the method of choosing state court judges under a system known as the Missouri Plan.
No one questions Mrs. Breckenridge’s qualifications. She has been serving as an appellate court justice for the last 17 years and sat at a lower perch for nine years before that. It’s the process by which she found herself on the state’s supreme court that is at issue.
Breckenridge was appointed by Governor Matt Blunt. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The governor chose Breckenridge from a list of three judges chosen by the state’s Appellate Judicial Commission. He is required to pick one of the three — or instead, to have this powerful commission do the picking for him.
You see, as I wrote in August, the commission handed the governor three nominees, all unacceptable to him. He wanted non-activist, conservative judges.
Conservatives urged Governor Blunt to fight the commission, but the governor eventually caved. He nominated Breckenridge from the commission’s menu, tepidly stating that he would “accept Judge Breckenridge’s statement that she will not seek to legislate from the bench.”
So, just who makes up the Appellate Judicial Commission? How are they chosen?
Good questions. The commission is made up of three members elected by the Missouri Bar Association and three members selected by the governor — each serving six-year terms. The seventh member? The sitting chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Is it a good idea to have our most powerful judges determined largely by a private organization? Shouldn’t we at least alternate the private group doing the choosing? One year it could be the state bar, another year Wal-Mart stockholders in the state, another year the Rolla Bowling League. In leap years, a statewide group of local bar owners might do the selecting.