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Missouri's Chief Justice Urges Judicial Candidates to Avoid Taking Positions, Part 2

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...Here's the second part of her conversation with the Chief Justice.

Shelton: Given that you and many people in Missouri are fans of our state's non-partisan court plan, is it disappointing to you at all that we continue to have many circuit and associate circuit judges elected on partisan ballots?

Wolff: No I don't believe so, especially in smaller counties where you've got someone running for associate circuit judge for that county and it's a small enough county that people know who that person is or they know him or her personally. In those races, you're not talking about a lot of money to run a campaign. There is in the Missouri constitution, a method by which a county can opt in to the non-partisan court plan as indeed St Louis County, Platte County, and Clay County have opted in, gone away from the partisan election to the non-partisan court plan. It strikes me where there are counties where the election contests are getting expensive enough that maybe the good citizens of those counties ought to think about whether this is the way we should be picking our judges. But it's really a local option. And I guess this is my own view about this is that if you have to raise more money to run for office than say the annual salary of the office, that gets to be kind of a problem. The question is, "Who gives the money?" Usually, it's the lawyers and people who might have business before the courts and I think that diminishes respect for the courts. On the eastern side of Missouri, we were treated to and I say treated advisedly, in 2004 to a contested campaign for the Illinois Supreme Court. There was about $9 million spent on this campaign, most of it spent on St Louis area television because that was the media market for the part of southwestern Illinois where this district is. And I can't imagine anyone seeing those ads would think that justice was going to be fair and impartial. It was very clear that one side was supported by the trial lawyers, the plaintiff's bar and the other candidate was supported by the business community, the chambers of commerce, insurance companies, tobacco companies who had business before that court. That's really something that we ought to avoid. And in most of the state, even though we have partisan elections, we've avoided those kinds of elections because the cost of running for election in most of the smaller, rural counties in Missouri is really low.

Shelton: I happened to see some of those ads. They were vicious.

Wolff: They were shocking. I mean I wouldn't be shocked if that was a race for the US Senate because people say lots of terrible things but they were ads that directed themselves to that person's integrity as a judge. You know, "He lets child molesters out" or whatever it was. It was a distortion on both sides of the record. And much of the money was spent independently by independent committees that aren't subject to that kind of campaign regulation and it was just plain awful.

Shelton: I know that several years ago there was a change to what judicial candidates could say in their campaigns. Tell me about that change and the impact it's had here in Missouri.

Wolff: In our state as in most states, the code of judicial conduct prohibited a candidate for judge announcing his or her views on particular issues. Minnesota had such a prohibition just as Missouri had and it was challenged in a case called the Republican Party versus White. It went to the U-S Supreme Court which said that judicial candidates had a right under the First Amendment free speech principle to announce their views. Immediately after that decision, which was in 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court revised the code of judicial conduct to say that a candidate was free to announce his views but the candidate if elected judge may have to recuse himself or herself from a case where the candidate has already announced a position.

Shelton: So that would be the safeguard in the case that they would take a particular position on an issue.

Wolff: Sure, you don't want someone to be running for judge and promising a particular outcome and then delivering the promise from the bench. I think everybody who comes to our courts has a right to expect the judge will approach his or her case with an open mind and an obligation first and foremost to follow the law and the constitution, not to be following his or her own beliefs or expressed views on the matter.