ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court sent a strongly worded letter last week chiding judges and city attorneys in the county’s 81 municipal courts for limiting access to their courtrooms.
In her letter, Judge Maura B. McShane stated that she has discovered a number of courts are limiting seating to defendants and their attorneys exclusively, “without any justification.”
Some city courts are telling defendants who show up with their children that the children can’t come in, leaving defendants with no choice but to be saddled with additional charges for missing their court dates or leaving their children unattended.
“This practice is not only a clear violation of the Missouri Constitution, but it also subjects those courts to potential claims for violations of constitutional rights,” the letter states.
McShane’s letter urges municipal judges to sign a voluntary operating order for their courts. It would allow any person entry — unless he or she is in violation of the dress code, is intoxicated or acting in an inappropriate manner, or if his or her entrance would violate the building’s fire code.
McShane, who could not be reached for comment, began investigating municipal court practices after she got a letter three months ago from St. Louis University School of Law and the ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal service provider, expressing concerns.
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said for most people, their first and possibly only interaction with the court system is when they pay a traffic ticket.
“The way it works in St. Louis County is that it’s mostly poor people and minorities in those courts, and their very first interaction with the court is a sign saying, ‘No one else is allowed to enter here.’”
After receiving the letter, McShane set up a committee headed by attorney Frank Vatterott, who is the municipal judge in Overland. The committee found that about 37 percent of the courts that responded to a survey do not allow children in the courtroom, and 10 percent allow only the person listed on the docket.
“They were right; there wasn’t open access,” Vatterott said.
Antonio Morgan, 28, of Hazelwood, said he was told his children couldn’t come in with him to pay his traffic ticket at Hazelwood Municipal Court in 2011.
After going out to the parking lot and sitting in his truck a few minutes, Morgan saw one of his friends, who also was paying a ticket. The friend’s girlfriend agreed to stay in her car, parked next to Morgan’s, and watch Morgan’s children while he went inside, he said.
“So I went in, and I was going to talk to the court clerk about my fines, when an officer came in with my kids and said, ‘Whose kids are these?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘They’re mine,’ and he said, ‘You left them in the vehicle by themselves.’”
Morgan said he explained the arrangement he had made, but the officer didn’t believe him.
“He locked me up for child endangerment, and my wife had to come and get the kids,” he said. “I had to spend the night in Hazelwood jail, hire an attorney, and I was paying that fine for a year.”
Municipal judges reached Thursday and Friday said they intend to sign the suggested order.
Rick Bumb, municipal judge in Shrewsbury, said that city had been one of the offenders, limiting access because of the small size of the courtroom.
“The issue has been some kid coming up with some teenage friends,” he said. “But I’ve never separated a kid from a parent.”
In fact, Bumb said, he has what he calls the “baby docket,” during which parents with children are taken first in line.
David Chartrand, municipal judge in Vinita Terrace, said seating is limited, so only those on the docket and their attorneys are admitted to the courtroom.
“I haven’t seen the letter yet, but if we have to correct the problem, we will,” he said. “How I’m going to do that, I don’t know.”
Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders said he is happy that McShane acted so quickly on the request.
“It’s a fundamental principle of our country that the courts are open to the public, so it’s important that the municipal courts understand that they are courts, too,” he said.