Missouri judges in communities across the state run for office in partisan elections. But in Missouri’s urban centers, and the state’s highest and most influential courts, judges are picked using a method designed to keep politics out of the judicial branch.
But should judges, regardless of how they get their job, face term limits just like state legislators and most statewide officeholders?
That’s what The Star’s readers wanted to ask our panel of business leaders, policymakers and community catalysts participating in “The Missouri Influencers” series.
Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools
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Yes. I believe that judges who are proven and doing their job well should remain for consistency purposes. If they are performing poorly, I would most certainly hope that there’s a process to remove judges who are obviously performing poorly.
Jean Paul Bradshaw, lawyer and former U.S. attorney
Judges don’t serve in a representative capacity like legislators. It’s not a question of getting too close to lobbyists or losing touch with their districts, they simply hear cases and decide them according to the law, so the reasons that have compelled people to consider term limits for legislators just aren’t there.
Mark Bryant, lawyer and former Kansas City Council member
Yes. Federal judges should be subject to term limits. As matters stand, the President of the United States is limited to an 8-year term but can appoint judges to the federal bench who serve for 30-40 years and influence policy way beyond a president’s term in office. Thus, despite misgivings about many of President Trump’s policies, he is able to unite the Republican Party behind the appointments of Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch because Supreme Court Justices serve long past a president and most members of Congress.
Mike Burke, lawyer and former Kansas City Council member
I favor keeping the current system. It has been a model for the rest of the country. Term limits would make the system more political.
Woody Cozad, lobbyist and former state GOP chairman
If you term-limit judges, they will know from their first days on the bench that they will eventually return to private practice. The temptation will be great to hand down decisions that will enrich them when they’re back on the other side of the bench. A party able to offer them well-paid employment might get favored treatment. Generally, I favor term limits. Not for judges.
John Danforth, former U.S. senator
No. Term limits would artificially deprive Missouri of highly qualified judges.
Jane Dueker, lawyer, radio host and former political adviser
Non-partisan Court Plan judges are subject to retention vote. Other judges stand for election. The voters should impose term limits at the ballot box. Term limits are a great talking point but as we have seen in the legislative context, term limits have heightened electoral politics.
We do not need judges worried about their next job. That negatively impacts the appearance of impartiality. Also, term limits would create a less experienced judiciary. Like legislators subject to term limits, not having to live with the consequences of your decisions has a negative impact on the decisions made. I also think the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old needs to be raised or eliminated. That age was set when life expectancy was much lower. It would actually save money to do so.
Pat “Duke” Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO
No, I personally believe term limits do more harm than good. The idea that all individuals have an arbitrary “shelf-life” after which they can no longer be effectively is misguided. Our efforts should be focused on a sound selection process, so that we have a fair, impartial, diverse and intelligent judiciary.
John Fierro, Kansas City Public Schools board member
No. Judges on the Missouri supreme court and appellate courts are subject to the nonpartisan court plan and run for retention; if the voters disapprove of their track record, they can vote to remove them. I think this is a fair and transparent mechanism for insuring democracy. In addition, judges subject to the nonpartisan court plan undergo a judicial performance review by the Missouri Bar, yet another mechanism to hold judges accountable to the needs of the people.
Jason Grill, media, public affairs and crisis communications consultant
No. Voters have the opportunity to vote to retain or not to retain judges in Missouri on the ballot already through the nonpartisan court plan. We do not need to politicize the judiciary through politically motivated elections or judicial term limits in Missouri.
John Hancock, consultant and former chair of the Missouri Republican Party
I’ve never contemplated term limits for judges. Voters have a recourse to remove poor judges through the retention process. Term limits could result in removing good judges from the bench prematurely, in my opinion.
James Harris, political strategist
I firmly believe that federal judges should not have term limits. The framers of the Constitution very specifically made these positions a lifetime appointment to ensure an independent judiciary.
At the state level, judges already have limitations: a mandatory retirement age of 70, and (for those appointed via the Missouri Plan) regular — albeit ineffective — retention elections. If the concern is about changing the state judiciary to make judges more responsive to the needs of Missouri, the best way to do so is by replacing the Missouri Plan with direct judicial elections.
Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. and former Kansas City Council member
No, term limits happen at the ballot box.
Bob Holden, former governor
No,I believe the independence of the position is important for the long term stability of our democracy.
Vernon Percy Howard, Jr, pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
Most of us value the ideal of a “free and independent judiciary” envisioned to be impartial, statute/law centered, and minimally influenced by political factors or pressures such as the economy, political parties, corporate wealth interests, or the concern for individual income or vocational security. Absolving judgeships from term limits is envisioned to help facilitate such reality.
While in theory term limits help to accomplish this, we are naive to believe that somehow and in some ways the political factors noted are not at play influencing decisions. The fact of the matter is that judges do not operate in social bubbles. Likewise, the elected officials appointing them often choose them because of their political symmetry to the appointing official’s interests.
Such was and is the case with the Trump-Kavanaugh debacle. Due to these kinds of unavoidable intrusions where political factors outweigh the value of impartiality, term limits can offer a safeguard against permanent outcomes of “stacking the deck” with judiciaries whose political interests “trump” justice and fairness, or in this instance where the nominee has a clear record of jurisprudence in application of the law that fit the political interests of the president, the appointing official.
The broader crisis in our democracy this question broaches is the full and informed participation of the electorate in electoral politics with respect to all three branches. What’s needed, in light of the retention vote practice for many states and municipalities, is more grassroot monitoring, analysis, education, and dissemination of the facts and implications around the decisions of judges.
Are they sufficiently experienced in the law? Are they of an even keel in temperament? Are they extraordinarily knowledgeable? Do they understand the dispensation of justice? Are they humble and free from a God-complex? Do they know how to correctly apply the law to the facts of the case? Do they understand that the law is sometimes imperfect, flawed, unable to render justice and will sometimes have to be tempered by a sense of fairness in rulings?
Our grave need to defend democracy in this new millennium must include structural and organized judgeship watches, retention votes accompanied by judges’ judicial records and the implications of their decisions and, if term limits, terms that are long enough to foster freedom and independence and yet short enough to avoid stacking political decks.
With our democracy under such threat and siege by the Supreme Court’s defanging of the Civil Rights Act, foreign influence and collusion questions, low voter turnout, elitist/super wealthy control of policy and law, and the loss of hope in the process by many, this question of term limits is paramount to the preservation and the hopeful trending upward of our democracy.
Jolie Justus, Kansas City Council member
No. The judiciary is an independent branch of government that benefits from experienced, diverse jurists who are not subject to the unnecessary distractions and political pressure created by term limits.
Under the Missouri nonpartisan Court Plan, citizens have the opportunity to review and retain judges from several counties, and all the state’s appellate courts. Additionally, judges in non-Court Plan counties must stand for election every four to six years. In addition to the electoral checks, the bar and the judiciary have a strict code of conduct with an effective process for punishment and removal of judges who violate the code.
Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group
No. Missouri statute provides that judges face mandatory retirement at age 70, so further regulation would be duplicative and, in my view, unnecessary.
Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library, co-founder of the Show-Me Institute
Perhaps an age limit — on both ends.
Quinton Lucas, Kansas City Council member
No. We want experts in the law. Foundational to understanding law is being able to apply it to a number of factual situations. Why would we take off the bench someone with familiarity in evidence, sentencing, common law principles?
Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College
Absolutely not. Most Missouri judges bring a mastery of the law and an analytical mind to their tenure on the bench. But intellect alone doesn’t make a magistrate. It takes compassion, insight, and the tenacity to remain stubbornly optimistic, even in the daily face of human frailty and failure. Term limits cut short that evolution to wisdom, to the detriment of our system of justice and the citizens it serves.
Richard Martin, director of government affairs at JE Dunn Construction
Term limits are not the solution. However, age limits should be installed. It’s hard to understand how the people aren’t impacted at some point in a negative way with judges in their 80s still hearing cases. Maybe you make an exception for the Supremes but not all federal judges — 75 would make sense to me.
Jay Nixon, former governor
I support the Missouri Court plan that requires retirement at 70 regardless of time of service. For a myriad of reasons, i.e. retention votes, term limits would not be helpful or productive.
Ken Novak, UMKC professor of criminal justice and criminology
I generally do not support term limits, provided elected officials are subjected to real review and evaluation, and the public has a choice whether to retain officials.
The judiciary is different than other political offices, and this is by design. Judges operate in relative obscurity and the general public rarely knows who their judges are. So when it comes time to decide whether to retain a judge, the public most likely thinks, “sure...why not?”
A more informed voting public would serve us better than term limits.
CiCi Rojas, partner and president of Tico Productions and Tico Sports
I do believe term limits are a good practice in general. However with regards to judges I believe their terms should be lengthy, so the individuals can focus without distractions or outside pressure.
Jeff Simon, managing partner, Husch Blackwell
Absolutely not. Judges need independence, experience, and impartiality to do their jobs — and their jobs are a bedrock of our constitutional democracy. Term limits would adversely effect these must-haves of a quality judicial system — and for no good reason.
The selection process ensures judges of character and competence, and the Canons of Judicial Ethics provide adequate protection for any individual situation which might need attention. A judge facing a term limit might begin to be influenced by thoughts of “what comes next” as he or she makes her decisions — not a good situation. In short, there is no good reason to impose term limits on judges and lots of reasons not to.
Mike Talboy, director of government affairs for Burns & McDonnell and former state legislator
No. There is no need and term limits do the most harm in that they artificially terminate the tenure of good, decent, thoughtful jurists. The Missouri Plan for selection and retention vote system at the state level is a very logical and thoughtful approach. It would actually be better if this was in place across the entire state.
As for the federal courts, lifetime appointments have not been an issue. In fact, being that there are no longer political pressures once appointed, they have actually paved the way to some landmark decisions.