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Judge sides with St. Louis County cities that claimed municipal court reform law is unfair

Judge sides with St. Louis County cities that claimed municipal court reform law is unfair

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A judge in Cole County Circuit Court on Monday struck down provisions of a law that limited what municipalities in St. Louis County could raise through municipal court fees and fines and set minimum standards for police departments.

Several cities in St. Louis County had challenged the law, calling it an improper “special law” that unfairly targeted them, and an unfunded mandate that would be illegal under the Missouri Constitution.

The main source of contention was the way the law unevenly applied to St. Louis County, whose municipalities were banned from generating more than 12.5 percent of their general revenue from traffic fines and fees. The limit was set at 20 percent in the rest of the state, down from 30 percent statewide previously. People on both sides of the issue said they believe the 20 percent limit remains in effect statewide.

The law, which is known as Senate Bill 5, came in response to the unrest after the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. An ongoing Post-Dispatch investigation has exposed how cities in the St. Louis area rely heavily on court fines and fees to raise revenue for city services. The system is rife with conflicts of interest, uses illegal tactics to coerce payments and offers little transparency. Public interest lawyers from ArchCity Defenders and St. Louis University have pushed for reforms through lawsuits and reports.

A blistering report by the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2015 called the Ferguson municipal court an abusive fundraising tool and urged other courts in St. Louis County to change their ways. Six months later, Gov. Jay Nixon signed what he called the “most sweeping” municipal court reform bill in state history.

Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem’s ruling prohibits the state from selectively applying sections of the law, known as SB5, to just St. Louis County. That means St. Louis County municipalities cannot be required to meet several minimum standards, such as having accredited police departments within six years.

It also threw out requirements for all Missouri municipalities to report municipal court data to the state auditor’s office every year.

The main architect of the court reform law, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said in an emailed statement that he had contacted Attorney General Chris Koster to urge him to appeal the ruling and said he was confident “our bipartisan reform will pass the Missouri Supreme Court test.”

“This is another example of why so many Missourians have lost faith in government, the justice system and big institutions because they make them feel powerless and used,” Schmitt said. “For years, citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks. These same bureaucrats used the tax money they collected to hire an out-of-state attorney and lobbyists to fight the most significant municipal court reform ever enacted in Missouri.”

A spokeswoman for Koster said people in his office were reviewing the ruling.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in November, are Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel-Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston, and Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter.

Sam Alton, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said, “Obviously I’m elated, and I know the municipalities that are involved are elated.”

David Pittinsky, a Philadelphia lawyer hired by the cities to challenge the law, called the ruling “a very courageous decision” given the current political climate.

Having the law struck down based on both of the municipalities’ claims — that it created an unfunded mandate and was unconstitutional in applying certain provisions to just St. Louis County — was “really a tremendous victory,” he said.

Advocates of limits on municipal court revenue were disappointed.

“This is why we have appellate courts,” said Dave Leipholtz, director of community-based studies for Better Together, a group that supported SB5 and has advocated for consolidating municipal governments in the region. “This decision kind of flies in the face of case law in the state of Missouri. We firmly believe there will be an appeal, and it will be successful.”

Bel-Nor Mayor Kevin Buchek, reached Monday night, said he also thought the case would be appealed, but that the ruling was “a great first step for us. When we filed this lawsuit we anticipated an appeal from whichever side was not victorious in initial proceedings.”

Green, the Normandy mayor, said the court ruling “reflects what we’ve said from the beginning: that (SB5) was reckless, and without regard for the current law.” He pointed to the state’s Hancock Amendment, which prohibits the state from placing a mandate on a municipality without any mechanism to fund it.

Green said he and others reached out to lawmakers to express those concerns before the bill became law “but nobody wanted to have that conversation.

“We had no choice but to file this suit and let the law stand,” he said. “I hope there is a better approach next time.”

In a statement Monday night, Gov. Nixon said SB5 was intended “to end the unacceptable abuses of the municipal court system in the St. Louis region and ensure all municipal courts in the state operate fairly, ethically and transparently.”

“As we continue to review today’s ruling, I look forward to working with the Legislature this session to make any changes that are needed to ensure this important law can be fully and fairly enforced,” Nixon said.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway said in a statement that her office was reviewing the ruling and what it might mean for her office, which is charged with ensuring municipalities comply with the reporting requirements of the law. She said an ongoing initiative that involves more aggressive audits of the municipal courts will continue regardless of what happens with the lawsuit.

If the state appeals, Alton said, “then the plaintiffs will be ready to fight that battle as well.”

Alton, a city attorney in Pagedale and municipal judge and prosecutor in several other north St. Louis County municipalities, said he hopes the decision sends a message to Schmitt and other lawmakers who are drafting a new bill that would further limit municipal courts by restricting what they can raise from nontraffic-related ordinances, such as housing code violations.

While current versions of that bill do not have special provisions that apply only to St. Louis County, Alton said he believes the intent is the same.

“This ought to give the Legislature a bit of pause,” he said.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Jennifer S. Mann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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