No. I am not talking about the Missouri Supreme Court’s surgical removal of one tiny piece of the cancer known as Missouri’s municipal courts. It should have happened long ago.
I write today on a piece of legislation that came to light at a recent meeting of the St. Louis City Democratic Central Committee. I was not there. It was held on the Saturday morning prior to the Primary Election and I was out doing GOTV. I received information on the meeting second-hand, which would be the case even if I had actually attended because I am deaf.
It appears there was a motion to send a letter to Missouri lawmakers against Senate Bill 527 to eliminate the voters right to elect the St. Louis City Sheriff and make it an appointment by Circuit Court judges. This caused a bit of a dust-up because the sponsor is St. Louis City State Senator Joe Keaveny, who is also the 28th Ward Democratic Committeeman but was not present at the meeting. Awkward.
I am not sure how this turned out. There won’t be an official account for me because the group does not provide written Minutes of the meetings. The Minutes are only read aloud, which would only work if I was in front of the Secretary and able to read her lips.
Senate Bill 527 represents the final installment in the St. Louis City Circuit Court’s power grab and march to total lack of accountability to voters and taxpayers.
Our St. Louis City Circuit Judges are appointed under the so-called NonPartisan Court Plan. This is the judicial selection process which replaces the political decisions of voters with the political decisions of governors.
I am OK with appellate judges and Supreme Court judges being appointed in this manner because I do not have a better idea on how to do it.
I am OK with circuit court judges being appointed- as long as there are checks and balances at the Courthouse, as long as there are elected officials keeping an eye on them at the Courthouse. But that is very close to ending here in St. Louis City.
I say “finally got their way” because they had been working on it since at least Mavis Thompson was Circuit Clerk. It was Thompson’s office that got stuck being the test site for a new statewide Child Support system, resulting in an intended disaster that caused Thompson her re-election in 1998. The Circuit Court Judges were good with Mariano Favazza beating Thompson because he had voiced support for making the office appointed. But Favazza changed his mind once sworn in.
The Judges put their hopes on charter reform, which went down the toilet. The voters not giving them what they wanted, our unelected Circuit Court judges turned to reform by legislative coup. First, taking over the Circuit Clerk’s office.
Next, in 2013, judges got their way with House Bill 163 and took away the voters right to decide who should be Public Administrator and made that office an appointment by the Circuit Court.
Now they want to appoint the Sheriff, leaving the Circuit Attorney as the only elected official with a presence at the Courthouse. Can we expect a prosecutor to challenge Circuit Court Judges on the way they manage the court? Hardly. It would take something really outrageous.
Ever wonder who pays for our Circuit Courts? In St. Louis City, it’s an $8.3 Million Budget item. The Circuit Court basically tells the City what it wants and we pay for it. It works much the same way we used to get billed for the Police Department and still get billed for the Board of Elections, that is still appointed by the Governor.
The only Missouri County with an appointed Sheriff is St. Louis County. Yes. Even home rule charter Jackson County, Missouri has an elected sheriff.
I am not a fan of Sheriff Jim Murphy. He should have retired. Absent that decision, he should have been replaced by the voters. But booting out a lifer office holder is very hard when the very people in positions of power who talk about how he needs to go, prop up his re-election with money and endorsements. But my lack of support for the current Sheriff does not cause me to consider, for even a moment, that judges taking over that office by legislative coup is appropriate.
The big issue here is not changing elected offices into appointed ones. It is how it is being done- usurping the authority of voters, undoing decisions made by voters regarding checks and balances at the Courthouse.
Judges want it both ways. They want to be appointed by insider politics of the so-called NonPartisan Court Plan and engage in legislative politics to get what they want, but they do not want to get their hands dirty in the politics of the little people- the voters. They are above answering questions at retention vote time, rendering such votes meaningless and clogging up the ballot.
Perhaps it is time that we change that. Perhaps it is time for organizations- political party ward organizations, neighborhood associations, business groups- to require judges appear before them prior to retention votes and answer questions. Perhaps it is time that ward organizations make Retention or No Retention endorsements in these elections based on these appearances.
Perhaps it is time for voters to show judges that voters do matter.
— Marie Ceselski, 7th Ward Democratic Committeewoman
UPDATED: Some are concerned that merely talking about this issue will draw unnecessary attention and increase passage. My belief is that this gets done regardless of public debate on the matter. Our so-called nonpartisan Circuit Court Judges hold great political influence. This session. Next session. It will happen. It will get amended to another bill the same way our Circuit Court Judges disenfranchised voters in the matter of election of the Circuit Clerk and Public Administrator.
— Marie Ceselski, 7th Ward Democratic Committeewoman
The numbers from Tuesday’s St. Louis City Municipal Primary are alarming. Barely anyone voted.
21.9%: 8th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
19.6%: 15th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
16.4%: 7th Ward Alderman 3 Candidate race
15.9%: 26th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
14.9%: 2nd Ward Alderman 4 Candidate race
14.8%: 24th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
14.2%: 20th Ward Alderman 3 Candidate race
14.3%: 28th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
12.5%: 12th Ward Alderman 4 Candidate race
11.3%: 4th Ward Alderman 2 Candidate race
9.1%: Board of Alderman President 2 Candidate race
8.7%: 22nd Ward Alderman 3 Candidate race
7.4%: 6th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
7.0%: 16th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
6.6%: 18th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
5.0%: 14th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
4.8%: 10th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
4.5%: 13th Ward Alderman Unopposed Incumbent
Additionally, there were Republican Candidates running in 8 of 28 Wards and Green Party Candidates running in 5 of 28 Wards.
Voters had choices in most wards.
I cannot speak for other wards, but I know in the 7th Ward that the turnout issue was obviously not due to a lack of high quality candidates or a lack of contact from/with the candidates. We had robust debate in the 7th Ward. It was an election, not a coronation. I am proud of that.
In the March 2013 St. Louis City Primary, turnout was higher with far fewer competitive alderman races and day-long freezing rain. The difference? A competitive race for Mayor: Mayor Francis Slay vs. Board President Lewis Reed.
We did not have that this year. There was no citywide contest driving voter turnout. Jimmie Matthews was no threat to President Reed.
Turnouts are higher in State Elections when the top of the ticket is President, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, and Statewide Offices. We know from last year that a lack of a Democratic Candidate for the sole Statewide Office on the ballot can decrease turnout in St. Louis City significantly.
Instant Runoff Voting isn’t the answer. Chicago operates under that system. Turnout was 32% in their February 24th election for Mayor, 50 Aldermen, and a ballot issue to return control of the Chicago School Board back to voters.
Nonpartisan Elections aren’t the answer. Municipalities in St. Louis County have nonpartisan elections and their turnout is pitiful as well.
What can be done here to increase turnout? We can move our St. Louis City March-April Elections in odd-numbered years to State August-November Elections in even-numbered years. It will save money and increase participation.
–Marie Ceselski, 7th Ward Democratic Committeewoman