Could Nebraska be the next state to try and change its merit selection system? LR 283, introduced last week and pending in committee, directing the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee “to conduct an interim study to examine issues surrounding judicial independence including, but not limited to, Nebraska’s current method of judicial retention” could be innocuous, or setting the state for such a challenge/change in 2012. (Update 5/31/11: See post here. The study does not seek to attack the state’s merit system.)
First, some background.
Nebraska was an early adopter of merit selection, adopting it in November 1962. At the same election, and in almost identical language, Iowa adopted merit as well, making them the fifth and sixth states to move to the Missouri Plan since its creation in 1940. (see page 20 of this report put out in 2003 by the American Judicature Society by then AJS-staffer Malia Reddick and Utah State Court Administrator Dan Becker).
Currently, all of the state’s six courts use the same merit selection system. Like Iowa, however, the state’s constitution (the 1962 amendment known as Art. V, Sec. 21) only guarantees that merit selection system for the Supreme and main trial (District) courts.
(1) In the case of any vacancy in the Supreme Court or in any district court or in such other court or courts made subject to this provision by law, such vacancy shall be filled by the Governor from a list of at least two nominees presented to him by the appropriate judicial nominating commission. If the Governor shall fail to make an appointment from the list within sixty days from the date it is presented to him, the appointment shall be made by the Chief Justice or the acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from the same list.
(2) In all other cases, any vacancy shall be filled as provided by law.
A separate section (Art. V, Sec. 27) allows the legislature to create the “separate juvenile” courts and choose their method of selection/appointment by statute.
Each of the four courts not given a merit-selection system by the constitution are presently covered by statutes to the same effect
Court of Appeals NRS 24-1101
County NRS 24-820
Worker’s Compensation NRS 48-152 & 48-153
Separate Juvenile NRS 43-2,114 (some NRS sections use commas)
While its co-1962 merit selection adopter Iowa is considering eliminating merit selection (statutorily for the Court of Appeals, constitutionally for other courts, see here for details), Nebraska has had no direct effort to eliminate its merit selection in some time.
The only major constitutional changes attempted lately were in 1998 (LR310CA, no link) when voters narrowly rejected an effort to have statewide retention elections for all 7 Supreme Court justices (currently, only the Chief Justice is retained statewide, the rest are retained by district). A 1999 constitutional amendment (LR7CA) to end merit and require elections for the District and County Courts was rejected in committee.
So, is LR 283 just a study of merit selection or a pretext for an Iowa-type attack on merit next session? History suggests the former, but in light of the flurry of anti-merit activity this year, it is hard to tell what end is what in the realm of judicial selection.