Tom Pendergast and the Feud That Changed the Way States Choose Their Supreme Court Judges

Kenneth H. Winn
Thursday, October 8, 2020
6:30 pm
Event Videos

The model for fairly selecting judges across much of our country is known as the Missouri Plan, born some 80 years ago in response to the political manipulations of notorious Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast. 

It’s a remarkable story – the forces of light turning back the evil of corruption – that helped signal the beginning of the end for Boss Tom. Angry over a Supreme Court decision that ran against his interests, Pendergast decided that one of its judges should be ousted in the state’s 1938 election and anointed an opposing candidate. Missouri Gov. Lloyd Stark stood by Douglas.  

Douglas won and, two years later, voters fed up by political corruption of the judiciary approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, the Nonpartisan Selection of Judges Court Plan.  

Kenneth H. Winn, Missouri’s former state archivist and former director of library and public services for the state Supreme Court, examines this notable chapter in the state’s history. As with all things Pendergast, it has taken on some elements of mythology. Winn separates fact from fiction in his online Library presentation. 

A little more than six months after the 1938 election, Pendergast was headed to prison for tax evasion. More than 30 other states would copy the 1940 Missouri Plan, which called for judges of the state supreme court, courts of appeals, and circuit and probate courts in Jackson County and city of St. Louis to be nominated by the governor from a list of three persons submitted by a judicial nominating commission. Judges would stand for retention in the first general election after 12 months in office. 

Winn, who has taught history at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Missouri, is the author or editor of a number of books and articles including Missouri Law and the American Conscience: Historic Rights and Wrongs. Watch his discussion live online at