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Role of the Judiciary Debated in Springfield

The role of the judiciary, activist judges and the future of the Missouri non-partisan court plan were the focus of a panel discussion in Springfield Thursday that brought together four individuals representing a range of views on these issues. KSMU's Missy Shelton was at the discussion and files this report.

The panel discussion was part of the Missouri Bar's Annual Meeting, an event that organizers say attracted about 900 people, mostly lawyers. The room was packed for a discussion about the role of the judicial branch involving a Supreme Court judge, two senators and state representative.

Republican Representative Jim Lembke spoke first. He has proposed moving away from Missouri's non-partisan court plan and using a process modeled after the federal system. Missouri's current system has long been praised and even adopted by other states as a process that largely removes politics from the process of choosing judges.

But Lembke says a change is necessary because some judges have gone too far in their rulings.

Supporters of Missouri's current system for choosing judges say there's no need for a change.

During the panel discussion, Democratic Senator Jolie Justus questioned the motives of those who criticize the judiciary.

Equally unbelievable, some say is the notion that a judicial candidate who has received millions of dollars in campaign contributions can set that aside when making decisions on the bench.

But there are those who say Missouri voters should directly elect judges to make sure they remain accountable to the public.

Others like Representative Jim Lembke say it would be better to emulate the federal system which would allow the governor to put judicial nominees before the senate.

When asked for an example of an activist ruling by a Missouri court, Lembke discussed one particular ruling that he found to be ridiculous.

In response to the criticism, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Mike Wolff offered an explanation. He noted there were two conflicting laws and the court had to decide between the two.

Another panel participant, Republican Senator Matt Bartle raised a concern about the lack of understanding between lawmakers and judges. He encouraged his fellow lawyers to try to understand the frustrations of lawmakers.

Bartle warned the Missouri Bar that unless they're willing to listen and try to understand that frustration, they may find an issue on the ballot next November that would change how Missouri selects its judges.