The Ways of the Court: An Introduction to the Supreme Court of Missouri
In Missouri, 415 judges and commissioners operate in courthouses across the state to hear roughly 2 million cases each year. Circuit Court includes associate, probate, juvenile and municipal divisions.
Opinions can then be appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, which is comprised of 32 judges over three districts; Springfield – Southern, Kansas City – Western, and St. Louis – Eastern.
“Most cases stop there,” says Betsy AuBuchon, clerk for the Supreme Court of Missouri. But cases so complex or of a certain subject matter are “automatically sent to the Supreme Court.”
Death penalty review, constitutional questions and tax or revenue law fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state’s high court, she says.
“Also, the Supreme Court can choose to take cases, on what we call transfer. So maybe the court looks at something that’s happened in the appellate court and sees that they think there was an error there, or perhaps two of the appellate districts have ruled differently on something.”
Or, AuBuchon adds, “If it’s just something that’s such a general interest or importance that maybe had never been dealt with before because technology had changed or the times had changed, then they’ll take those cases, too.”
Of the approximately 2 million cases filed each year in the state, the high court and its seven justices hear roughly 100 of them. Its session starts in September and typically ends in May, although some cases can extend session into June.
AuBuchon, who grew up in southern Missouri’s Alton, took over as the Supreme Court of Missouri clerk in January. She is the first female to hold the position and only the sixth clerk in the court’s history. As clerk, AuBuchon not only works for the Supreme Court and manages its 50 some staff, but serves as the chief administrative officer for the judiciary as a whole.
“I liken it to being an air traffic controller sometimes of just knowing where the planes are and what’s taking off,” she says.
She adds that the court does more than just hear cases.
“They adopt all the rules for the courts,” says AuBuchon. “So jury instructions for civil and criminal juries – those come through them. Any rule changes, and rules not only for how attorneys practice law but for how judges and lawyers are supposed to act. They look at those. We do the rules for reinstatement of attorneys and licensing of attorneys.”
She adds that the court spends a lot of time examining ways to improve procedure. For example, a crime task force will soon be looking into pre-trial and probation issues.
The Supreme Court’s operating budget for FY 2016 was $183.1 million, which made up two percent of the state’s general revenue.
Zel Fischer recently became the newest chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri. The new chief is chosen by members of the high court every two years.
“They usually come in in the order of their rotation that they came on the bench. Patty Breckenridge, who is from Vernon County, just finished serving her two years. And Judge Fischer started July 1 and will serve until June 30 of 2019,” says AuBuchon.
By and large, judges in Missouri are chosen through the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, during which a nonpartisan judicial commission reviews applications, interviews candidates and submits three names to the governor. The governor then has 60 days in which to appoint one of the finalists. Upon serving for at least one year, that judge must stand for a retention election in the next general election.
Last November’s death of Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman set in motion the replacement procedure. In April, Gov. Eric Greitens appointed Jackson County Circuit Judge W. Brent Powell to fill the vacancy.
Aside from the Missouri Plan, which is in effect in 100 of the state’s counties, some rural areas still elect judges.
“It is my opinion that Missouri has the best of both worlds,” AuBuchon says. “That in smaller areas like Oregon County, where I’m from, judges are – you know them, you’re from a smaller area, you see in them in the grocery store and they’re elected.”
The next session of the Supreme Court of Missouri begins in September. Above, hear our full conversation with Supreme Court Clerk Betsy AuBuchon.
Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu