Last year, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the state government to expand Medicaid, following through with the voter-approved mandate and dealing a blow to the Republican-led legislature which had opposed expansion for years.
It was far from the first major policy decision ruled on by Missouri’s state courts, and it won’t be the last. Several lawsuits filed in recent weeks seek to challenge and block new state statutes that criminalize homeless camping on public land and require photo ID to vote, while other suits aimed at laws such as 2021’s nullifying of certain federal gun regulations remain in the state legal system.
State courts, not just in Missouri but across the U.S., receive a fraction of the attention aimed at the federal judiciary — specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court, where a series of vacancies, nomination fights and landmark rulings in recent years have made for one of the most prolific political stories in the country. According to Gallup’s most recent national poll, disapproval of the high court sits at its highest (55 percent) since at least 2000.
The Show-Me State’s judiciary has not been free of criticism — namely from a few conservative lawmakers who have seen their legislative priorities dismantled or halted by unfavorable rulings — but in the eyes of the general public, it largely operates unnoticed.
“It takes some huge issue that the state court will deal with for them to get involved,” said Benjamin Woodson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who studies courts and public opinion. “Because most of the time, state courts don’t do much of anything that people seem to see as important.”
There are exceptions — most notably and recently across state lines in Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that residents have the right to an abortion enshrined in the state constitution. A vote earlier this month rejected a constitutional amendment attempting to overturn that ruling, keeping abortion legal in Kansas even after Roe v. Wade had been overturned.
Missouri could in the coming years see a similar ballot initiative — one that Woodson said could possibly end up in the state courts, though it would likely be “fairly straightforward.”
Courts in Missouri:Chief justice calls for communication, cooperation in address to lawmakers
Increasing tensions between lawmakers and the courts were apparent during Chief Justice Paul Wilson’s annual State of the Judiciary address earlier this year. One senator, who had previously called the high court “black-robed tyrants,” refused to attend the speech. Wilson, for his part, called for coordination and civility.
“Government is people and, for today’s purposes, it’s us,” Wilson said.
Missouri’s courts remain a prominent entity, frequently invoked and considered during the lawmaking process in Jefferson City. How, then, do they work? How are judges appointed? Do voters get to weigh in? And which governors have made the most appointments? Here are your answers.
How are judges appointed to state courts in Missouri?
Missouri’s courts are divided into three primary levels — county circuit courts, appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
The average person is probably most familiar with the local circuit court. These circuits handle everything from traffic tickets, to misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, to civil suits.
Almost all lawsuits challenging new legislation or executive action are filed in the Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City, where the State Capitol is located.
In 40 of Missouri’s 46 circuit courts, voters choose trial judges through partisan elections (vacancies are filled by the governor). The six most populous counties, however — in the St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield regions — have independent commissions dedicated to interviewing applicants and submitting finalists to the governor. Those commissions are made up of the chief judge of the region’s Court of Appeals and four residents of the circuit’s district (two lawyers are elected by The Missouri Bar and two non-lawyers are appointed by the governor).
Those judicial commissions are part of a broader “Nonpartisan Court Plan” enacted by Missouri in 1940 — designed to mitigate political influence in the legal system. In the decade prior, according to the courts’ own telling, “judges were plagued by outside influences due to the political aspects of the election process, and dockets were congested due to time the judges spent campaigning.”
A judicial commission also exists under the plan for the three appellate courts — the eastern, western and southern districts — and the Supreme Court, located in Jefferson City across the street from the Capitol.
Cases that are ruled on by circuit judges can be appealed by one of the parties to the appellate court, and again onto the Supreme Court. In certain cases, an appeal from the circuit court will go directly to the Supreme Court.
The commission for those higher courts accepts applications, interviews candidates and submits three finalists to the governor for selection, which he must do within 60 days. If the governor doesn’t make a decision within that time, the commission selects a nominee.
The commission that nominates finalists for appellate courts and the Supreme Court in Missouri is made up of seven people: the chief justice of the Supreme Court, three lawyers (one from each appellate court district) elected by the Missouri Bar, and three non-lawyers appointed by the governor. The commission’s current members as of August 2022 are:
- Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson, appointed under former Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration;
- Thomas K. Neill, a St. Louis attorney whose practice includes product liability, wrongful death and medical malpractice law;
- Neil Chanter, a Springfield attorney whose practice includes product liability, wrongful death and bad faith insurance law;
- Kirk R. Presley, a Kansas City attorney whose practice includes personal injury law;
- Timothy M. Drury, a St. Louis real estate and hotels executive;
- Sally Hargis, vice president and chairman of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company in Springfield;
- Kathy Ritter, a Columbia high school principal.
Woodson said Missouri’s system, which has in the decades since been adopted in a similar way by a number of other states, was best defined as a “merit system” under academic definitions — but elements of partisanship could still trickle in.
“A merit commission just sort of limits (it to) probably the less extreme candidates,” he said.
A look at past political contributions by the governor-appointed members of the commission reveals some party-line ties. Drury and Hargis, both of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson, have both donated to Republican candidates in the past, according to a database from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ritter, appointed by Nixon, and her husband have donated to Democratic State Auditor and former gubernatorial candidate Nicole Galloway.
Which governors have appointed the most judges to higher courts?
An analysis of all sitting judges on the three appellate courts and the Supreme Court reveals that Nixon, a Democrat, and Parson, a Republican, have made the most appointments to the current courts during their tenures.
Both two-term governors, Nixon and Parson have had the opportunity to fill a number of vacancies on the courts — as well as on the judicial commission, where members served staggered six-year terms. Nixon appointed 15 judges who still sit on the higher courts; Parson has appointed 11 (soon to be 12, when a vacancy on the Southern District Court of Appeals is filled).
Former Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who resigned from office in 2018 amid several scandals, appointed just one judge, filling a Supreme Court vacancy. On the campaign trail prior to his election, Greitens was vocally critical of the commission process; a staffer said in 2016 that it “gives trial lawyers too much control over the appointment of the very judges they argue their cases in front of.”
He instead favored a plan that allowed the governor to appoint judges unilaterally, but required legislative approval. The process was not changed during the year he was in office. The lack of any legislative input in the process is especially notable in recent years, during which lawmakers have criticized some court decisions and sought to intervene in other branches of government (such as by preventing the confirmation of a governor’s cabinet appointee).
Former Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, has eight appointees on the benches, and former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden has three. One appointee of the late Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan also remains on the eastern district’s appellate court.
Do voters get a say in the process?
Short answer: yes.
Every judge appointed through the commission process appears on the ballot in the next general election after they have spent a year in office. In these “retention elections,” which are nonpartisan, voters choose whether or not to allow the judge to serve a full 12-year term. A majority of “yes” votes is required for retention.
Judges are evaluated by a review committee, made up of attorneys from the major circuit court districts and the appellate districts. The criteria for the committee include a survey of lawyers, a survey of members of juries for trial judges and an evaluation of a sample of written opinions.
The results are then published publicly and distributed by the media, League of Women Voters and online.
It is exceptionally rare for judges to not be retained by voters. According to the courts, only four judges have ever been voted out of office, all of whom were trial judges, the most recent a circuit judge in St. Louis County in 2018.
In other similar systems, there have been exceptions to that rule. A 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in the state. In November 2010, three judges on the court — including the chief justice — lost their retention elections, The Des Moines Register reported. It was “the first time an Iowa Supreme Court justice had not been retained since 1962,” when Iowa implemented its merit system for state courts.
“For retention elections, the judges don’t have to worry ever, for the most part,” Woodson said. “And so they don’t really run for elections. So by sort of reducing the amount of campaign activity that judges have to do, it does help to make the public think the court is more legitimate.”
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.