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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

Ferguson Commission Eyes Overhaul Of Region's Municipal Courts

Better Together’s Dave Leipholtz, Washington University law school professor Mae Quinn and Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders speak at Monday's Ferguson Commission meeting.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

Since the unrest in Ferguson began in early August, curbing the power of municipal courts has become a focal point for policymakers from across the political spectrum. 

But at Monday’s meeting of the Ferguson Commission at St. Louis University’s Il Monastero, Maryland Heights resident Dan Hyatt brought the issue home.

The IT professional told commissioners how he was put in jail in Breckenridge Hills for three hours after a disagreement over whether he stopped at a stop sign. He said it was a galvanizing experience.

“I got into the north county courts and I saw nothing but injustice,” Hyatt said. “The blacks call it ‘just us’ because there is no justice in St. Louis. The attorneys called it north county justice because they know it’s corrupt. But they have to go along with the status quo.” 

This was a sample of testimony the commission's 16 members heard about how municipal courts affect ordinary citizens. Since Michael Brown was shot and killed, attorneys have questioned whether some courts trap primarily low-income residents into financial and legal turmoil over minor ordinance violations.

That message was magnified through presentations from three attorneys: Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders, Washington University law school professor Mae Quinn and Better Together’s Dave Leipholtz.   

Maryland Heights resident Dan Hyatt speaks before the Ferguson Commission about his experience dealing with the municipal court system in Breckenridge Hills.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Maryland Heights resident Dan Hyatt speaks before the Ferguson Commission about his experience dealing with the municipal court system in Breckenridge Hills.

During his address to the commission, Harvey said the region “should be humiliated” into making changes to courts.

“When you start looking at the budgets of these towns and how much they make off of these courts, it’s hard to refute that,” Harvey said. “When you’ve got the second highest source of revenue in many of these towns being revenue generated from municipal courts and it’s $2.7 million in one town and it’s $3.1 million in another town, it’s hard to say ‘no, it’s not about the money.’

“This is a system that works for rich people and doesn’t work for poor people,” he added. “And it doesn’t work for black people in our region. And it works for lawyers and judges and prosecutors here that make their living off of it.”

Quinn told the commission in her nearly 20 years of practicing law, she had “never seen what I’ve seen in this town.” Quinn, the director of Washington University’s Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic, said she’s seen “widespread” due process violations and deprivations of the right to counsel. 

“When I set up my legal clinic at Washington University six years ago and I took my students into our courts and communities, I could not believe what I saw,” Quinn said. “I was shocked. Shocked. And we have practiced in the juvenile courts and the municipal courts and the appellate courts and in the school disciplinary proceedings and administrative proceedings. So it’s not just a single view on a single night and it’s not just for one single client that I’m talking about.”

Leipholtz’s group recently unveiled a study of how much revenue the region's various municipalities take in from fines and court costs.He said one of the problems is that municipalities, in his words, “police themselves” to make sure they don't violate the so-called “Mack’s Creek law.” That statute dictates that cities cannot have revenue from fines and court costs constitute more than 30 percent of their budget.

“We think it begins with granting greater oversight,” said Leipholtz, adding that his group didn’t find any St. Louis County municipality that had to forfeit any money because of the law. “There’s no enforcement of it. It simply doesn’t do the trick.”

Is compromise the enemy?

After two meetings where commissioners faced a sometimes hostile reception from the crowd, Monday’s gathering went forward relatively smoothly. Soon after a public forum period came to an end, audience members broke into groups to discuss potential changes to municipal courts. 

Monday's meeting filled up St. Louis University's Il Monastero.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Monday's meeting filled up St. Louis University's Il Monastero.

Some of the ideas included giving community service instead of a fine; providing low-income individuals with public defenders; putting fines on a sliding scale; and lowering the “Mack’s Creek law” threshold. (Several lawmakers – including state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale – pre-filed legislation to limit fine revenue to no more than 10 percent of a city’s budget.)

But both Harvey and St. Louis University law professor John Amman said policymakers should consider consolidating or eliminating municipal courts altogether. Amman said that “we need to think more radically and decide whether this system should be allowed to survive – whether it's reformed or not.”

“What we have isn’t working,” Amman said. “And everybody in the system admits that there’s no oversight. The chief judge of St. Louis County has said, and rightfully so, she can’t supervise 84 municipal judges. They’re selected by the cities and she can’t do the day-to-day supervision. The Supreme Court has yet to do anything. So the question is who’s watching? Who’s making sure that municipal courts do the right thing? And the answer is nobody."

Ferguson Commission co-chairs Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure told the crowd that commissioners would use “working groups” to provide the Missouri General Assembly with guidance on the issue. Even though the commission is planning to issue its final recommendations next September, Wilson said commissioners would have suggestions about municipal courts well before then. 

Starsky Wilson talks with attendees at Monday's Ferguson Commission meeting.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Starsky Wilson talks with attendees at Monday's Ferguson Commission meeting.

Harvey, though, said he doubts the legislature will act in a way to make substantial changes to the municipal court system. Groups such as the Missouri Municipal League, for instance, will likely push back against efforts to expand the Mack’s Creek law.

He said, “Where we’re going to end up is at a point that only makes marginal steps toward a real solution.”

“Things are going to move back toward how they were unless there’s significant pressure from organizations and the people trying to push them in another direction,” Harvey said. “If you start the [Mack’s Creek law] at 10 percent, you’re going to end up at 15 or 20 percent during the negotiation. If you start at public defenders, you’re going to get part-time defenders. You’re going to get a clinic doing that work.”

“Those aren’t the solutions,” he added. “Those are going to be the result of a compromise.”

Still, St. Louis resident Jauquin Holmes said he’s heartened to see the commission examining policy changes. That, he said, is a sign of progress after the turmoil that followed Brown's death.

“It seemed like the people were getting to the issues and getting to some solutions,” Holmes said. “Even though they’re still angry, they’re still frustrated – there’s some positivity and some movement toward getting something done through this process.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.