The Missouri Supreme Court does not have the authority to order consolidation of St. Louis County’s myriad municipal courts, a working group assigned to study municipal court reform said Tuesday in a long-awaited report.
Consolidating the courts was one of the recommendations from the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to study ways to heal rifts in the community after the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014.
It was also urged by activists and lawyers who have driven some of the reform debate.
But the working group, appointed in May 2015 to study measures beyond last fall’s sweeping municipal court reform legislation, said consolidation is simply beyond the scope of the top court’s powers.
It said recent legal settlements and the new state law may, in fact, have gone too far in meddling with court procedures and local governance.
The “ultimate responsibility for the working policies and day-to-day operational practices adopted by any given municipal court must always remain with the voters of that municipality” who can elect or remove officials from office, the group wrote.
The report suggested restoring some power to municipalities to help them ensure tickets are paid, which drew praise from a north St. Louis County mayor but scorn from the lawyer who has arguably fought the hardest to limit that power.
“What I like about this report is that it creates a mechanism for oversight of the courts” but protected municipalities’ ability to prosecute people who are “openly defiant” about breaking laws and skipping court, said Normandy Mayor Patrick Green.
The report said a new state law created confusion about whether someone could be jailed for nonpayment or failure to show in court. Jail should be an option for people who are found to be in contempt, the group said. Cash bail, when used appropriately to ensure someone’s court appearance, is consistent with the state constitution and necessary.
Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said he hopes the Supreme Court doesn’t place much weight on the report.
“It is a political document that I think genuinely expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic issues raised by our pending federal litigation” alleging that several St. Louis County communities run debtors’ prisons, he said.
The report took issue with the city of Jennings’ settlement with ArchCity Defenders, saying it “would appear that the municipal court gives up any claim to having the authority to issue warrants in the event of nonpayment and nonappearance ... ”
Harvey said the comment was an “astoundingly disconnected statement that could only emanate from a middle-class white guy who has never considered a possibility” that he might not have the money to secure his freedom.
The report did seek to dispel any notion that municipal courts in St. Louis County have been unfair targets of criticism.
Based on its review, the group wrote, “the most serious concerns, operational deficiencies, and resulting loss of public confidence in Missouri’s municipal court system, are largely limited to certain municipal courts in St. Louis County.”
The high court said in a statement it would give the report careful study but offered no timetable for potential changes. Judge Karl DeMarce, an associate court judge in Scotland County and member of the working group, would oversee any reforms.
Reforms proposed by the working group that it said were within the court’s power include:
- Barring municipal judges from practicing law in other municipal courts in the same circuit.
- Barring attorneys from working as municipal prosecutors and defense attorneys in the same circuit.
- Studying the cost of having all municipal court proceedings recorded “to encourage proper behavior by judges, court personnel, attorneys” and others.
- Requiring municipal courts to maintain open records and proceedings and minimizing the need for in-court appearances to resolve tickets.
- Ensuring that the presiding judge of the state court circuit monitors the municipal courts.
- Creating two new positions in St. Louis County to supervise the municipal courts, which could include “frequent scheduled and unannounced visits.”
- Requiring municipal courts to dismiss “failure to appear” cases.
- Requiring municipalities that exceeded revenue caps set by state law to dismiss cases and warrants that predate January 2014, unless the prosecutor finds the case has merit.
- Subjecting judges to retention votes or direct election in courts where revenue limits have been exceeded or other serious problems have been observed.
- The area’s municipalities have been under fire for abusive ticketing and court practices that disproportionately penalize low-income and African-American people.
An ongoing Post-Dispatch investigation showed the disparity in how people with money and connections are treated compared to poor people unable to hire lawyers, and conflicts of interest in the municipal courts that thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy.
The working group held several public hearings, including one that drew about 70 people in St. Louis in November. Most who spoke were familiar faces in the reform movement, urging a massive overhaul of the fragmented system of 80 courts for 90 municipalities.
The report said some suggestions may have been “well-intended,” but were “political solutions, not legal ones.”
The group acknowledged if it had to design a municipal court system from scratch, it might have done things differently. But it placed much of the reform responsibility on the state Legislature, which it noted, already made significant changes — most prominently, a tighter cap on what can be raised in traffic revenue. Lawmakers are studying further measures, such as applying the revenue limits to code violations too.
“Our recommendations proceed from the belief that if the economic incentives for courts ... are removed, some of the more far-reaching recommendations of the other groups may not be necessary,” the group wrote.
Similarly, the report noted, eliminating a judge’s ability to also work as a prosecutor or defense attorney, or be directly hired by the municipality, reduces conflicts of interest and “remove(s) them from the need to respond to a city’s revenue needs.”
Working group member Kimberly Norwood, a Washington University law professor, dissented by saying the report doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the problems in St. Louis County.
“There are two systems of justice in the county — one for White and middle class residents and the other for poor and mostly Black residents,” she wrote.