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How to make an informed decision when voting for judges in Missouri and Kansas

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Kansas Supreme Court
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KCUR
More than 120 trial and appellate judges are up for retention in Kansas and Missouri on Nov. 3. Pictured are the current members of the Kansas Supreme Court. Sitting from left: Justice Eric Rosen; Chief Justice Marla Luckert; Justice Dan Biles. Standing from left: Justice K.J. Wall; Justice Caleb Stegall; Justice Evelyn Wilson; Justice Melissa Taylor Standridge.

Both Missouri and Kansas have non-partisan merit selection systems, although parts of both states still elect judges to office.

When voters head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, they’ll encounter a slew of down-ballot names they’ve likely never heard of: judges standing for retention.

In Kansas, 75 judges are on the ballot statewide; in Missouri, 52.

Are these retention votes really important?

“Vitally important,” according to Larry Tucker, senior counsel at the Armstrong Teasdale law firm and a former president of the Missouri Bar.

“So much of the state’s business and so much of the interest that we have as citizens of the state of Missouri come before the courts,” Tucker told Up to Date’s Steve Kraske in 2018. “We want the very best, the most efficient, the fairest, the most impartial people we can have.”

Both Missouri and Kansas have non-partisan merit selection systems, although parts of both states still elect judges to office.

Missouri Supreme Court - bench portrait July 2019.jpg
Missouri Supreme Court
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The judges of the Missouri Supreme Court pictured in July 2019.

In Missouri, the merit selection system generally works like this:

A commission composed of three lawyers chosen by the Missouri Bar, three citizens selected by the governor and the Missouri chief justice nominates three candidates for each judicial vacancy. The names are submitted to the governor, who chooses from among the three.

In the general election following the judge’s first year of service, the judge must then face a retention election. If a majority votes against retention, the judge is removed. If a majority favors retention, the judge remains for a full term of office.

After that, the judges stand for retention every few years, the interval depending on whether they are trial, appellate or supreme court judges.

(Since the plan’s adoption in Missouri 80 years ago, no appellate judge has been voted out of office, and only three trial judges — in Missouri, the trial courts are known as Circuit Courts — have been voted out of office.)

In Kansas, the merit selection system — for those districts where judges aren’t elected – is similar.

When there’s a vacancy in a trial court — in Kansas, they’re known as District Courts — a judicial nominating commission consisting of lawyers and non-lawyers who live in the district chooses a list of candidates and submits them to the governor, who then makes the selection. Those judges must stand for retention after their first year in office, and then again every four years.

Similarly, Kansas Supreme Court judges are selected by the governor from a list of three candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission consisting of five lawyers and four non-lawyers.

Like District Court judges, they, too, must stand for retention after their first year in office. After that, each of the seven Supreme Court judges stands for retention every six years.

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Missouri Supreme Court
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Members of the Missouri Supreme Court.

Kansas’ 14 Court of Appeals judges are selected differently due to a change in the law in 2013. The governor is free to nominate any licensed attorney between the ages of 30 and 70. The nomination is then subject to confirmation by the Kansas Senate.

Court of Appeals judges stand for retention after their first year in office and every four years thereafter.

“Kansans believe judges should be independent of politics as much as possible,” Greg Musil, an Overland Park lawyer who has been active in promoting judicial merit selection in Kansas, said on Up to Date. “It's not 100% ever, because human beings are political animals, but (we) do it as best we can.”

Since most voters have little interaction with the courts, how can they be expected to cast an informed vote?

If you’re voting in Johnson County, where 14 District Court and District Magistrate judges are up for retention this year, you can go to the Johnson County Bar Association’s website, and view a survey returned by lawyers who evaluated the judges. (Judges in Wyandotte County are chosen in partisan elections.)

The survey also includes evaluations of the six Kansas Supreme Court judges up for retention this year, and the six Kansas Court of Appeals judges up for retention.

Beyond checking the survey, Musil recommends that voters talk to their attorney friends.

“They practice or know somebody that practices in front of a judge, and that's probably the best way to find out whether that judge should be retained or not,” Musil said.

On the Missouri side, voters can consult YourMissouriJudges.org, which provides information and performance evaluations for all the judges who are up for retention.

On the Kansas side, voters can consult Johnson County Bar Association for evaluations of the Johnson County judges, Kansas Supreme Court judges and Kansas Court of Appeals judges who are up for retention.

Below are the names of the judges up for retention in the Kansas City metropolitan area, with links to biographies and evaluations of the Missouri judges and links to the biographies of the Kansas judges.

Kansas

Kansas Supreme Court judges up for retention:

Kansas Court of Appeals judges up for retention:

Johnson County District Court judges up for retention:

Missouri

Missouri Supreme Court judges up for retention:

Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, judges up for retention:

Jackson County Circuit Court judges up for retention:

Jackson County Associate Circuit Court judges up for retention:

Clay County Circuit Court judges up for retention:

Clay County Associate Circuit Court judges up for retention:

Platte County Associate Circuit Court judges up for retention:

Updated: October 17, 2022 at 4:00 AM CDT
This is an updated version of a story originally published in October 2018.
As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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