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Missouri's Chief Justice Urges Judicial Candidates to Avoid Taking Positions, Part 1

The chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court is urging candidates seeking judgeships this year to avoid campaigning on political issues. KSMU's Missy Shelton recently interviewed Chief Justice Michael Wolff by phone from his Jefferson City office and files this report.

Shelton: In Missouri, the majority of associate circuit judges and circuit judges run on partisan ballots. In St Louis and Kansas City as well as in counties in those areas, judges are nominated and appointed under the state's non-partisan court plan. For those judges who are running in partisan races, Chief Justice Michael Wolff is asking them to resist the urge to make campaign promises on issues.

Wolff: You want judges to be impartial and follow the law so if a person running for judge announces his or her position in advance then the person who comes to court feels like they're not getting a fair shake. So our effort despite the fact that these are elections is to point out that the elections are really about the personal characteristics and qualities of the candidate, not about their positions. You wouldn't want to have a referee in your game who's already announced how he's going to rule on issues that come up.

Shelton: Some people might say it would be good if we could know up front how judges feel about particular issues. Certainly judges do have personal opinions and beliefs. How would you respond to that?

Wolff: I think that's right that people do expect that judges, as other human beings have feelings and opinions about issues but I think what the public wants is to have people on the bench who can set aside those preconceived notions and rule on the law and on the evidence as it comes into the courtroom, not on what their preconceived notions are. We do the same thing by the way when we ask people to serve as jurors. One of the questions frequently asked by lawyers or by the judge of prospective jurors when they're questioned about their beliefs is this, "Can you set aside your own beliefs. Can you set aside what you've heard about this case in the past and judge the issue on the law as the law is explained to you." People have a right to expect judges to follow the law. It seems to me if announce your position about how you would apply the law before anybody presents an argument or evidence, you probably shouldn't sit on that case.

Shelton: So it sounds like for example if you have a judge appointed by the president to the U.S. Supreme Court, you should not be able to deduce because of that president's party affiliation how that judicial nominee would rule in particular cases.

Wolff: The nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito...the hearings on those nominations were very instructive on this point because they were careful to show the senate and the public how they analyze legal issues by way of really showing us what their qualifications were for the job but they avoided taking positions on issues that could come before the court. Some of those are very hot button topics. It really comes to the same principle. Interestingly, it's applied here in Missouri in places like Greene County and every place in the state except St Louis City and County and Clay, Platte and Jackson counties and the appellate courts where the judges are subject to retention votes. All the rest of the state, you have the potential for contested elections. Some of these are only contested in the primaries but some of them are Democrat versus Republican in November. So our way of selecting judges in Missouri and having them answerable to the people, whether it's a contested election or a retention vote is fundamentally different from the federal system.

Shelton: I've been speaking with the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Michael Wolff about his belief that judges should not make political promises leading up to an election. I'll continue my conversation with the Chief Justice this afternoon during All Things Considered.