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Missouri's code of conduct for judges rarely leads to disciplinary action

A police officer is silhouetted against Ferguson's police department and municipal court building, during nighttime protests on November 26, 2014.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
A police officer is silhouetted against Ferguson's police department and municipal court building, during nighttime protests on November 26, 2014.

Update 03/13/15 at 10:30 a.m.

Ron Brockmeyer has resigned as city prosecutor in Florissant and Vinita Park. He had earlier resigned from the municipal judge post in Ferguson and as prosecutor in Dellwood. Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider praised Brockmeyer's "efficient service," saying in a statement that "his unselfish resignation will enable our elected municipal judge, Dan Boyle, to continue the work he began after his election in April 2011 to streamline and improve Florissant’s judicial process to make it even more fair, effective and efficient."

Update 03/09/15 at 5:30 p.m.

Ronald Brockmeyer resigned as Ferguson's municipal judge Monday and the Supreme Court of Missouri announced it will assign all of Ferguson's pending and future municipal court cases to Judge Roy Richter of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. The transfer will take effective March 16 and last until further notice, according to a transfer order filed Monday by Chief Justice Mary Russell.

Our previous story:

The Department of Justice’s investigation into the city of Ferguson uncovered discriminatory patterns and practices. Among other things, the report, released last week, found evidence that Ferguson's court system, led by municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, levied disproportionate fines on African Americans, arrested people who could not pay fines and allowed city officials to dismiss traffic violations for friends.

These allegations could be interpreted as violations of Missouri’s Code of Judicial Conduct. But complaints made against judges are rare, and public information about the complaints is limited.

Here are the ways that Brockmeyer may have violated Missouri code:

  • In a review of Ferguson’s discretionary rulings in individual cases, the DOJ determined that African-American defendants were 68 percent less likely than other defendants to have a case dismissed, and 3 times less likely to have a case be voided. Rule 2-2.3 of Missouri’s Code says judges must perform the duties of their office without bias or prejudice, or manifest bias through the performance of their judicial duties.
  • Brockmeyer told DOJ investigators that it "is not uncommon for him to add charges and assess additional fines when a defendant challenges the citation that brought the defendant to court." Rule 2-2.2 of Missouri’s Code says a judge must "demonstrate due regard for the rights of the parties to be heard and to have issues resolved without unnecessary costs or delay."
  • According to the DOJ report, emails show Brockmeyer asking Ferguson’s prosecuting attorney to dismiss a speeding ticket he had received in the nearby city of Hazelwood. Ferguson’s prosecutor also works as the prosecuting attorney for Hazelwood. Rule 2-2.4 in Missouri’s Judicial Code does not allow judges to "abuse the prestige of the judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others," and specifically names the example of a judge alluding to his or her judicial status to gain favorable treatment in encounters with traffic officials.

So, if these practices are prohibited, where were the whistleblowers?   
Attorneys say these practices are not limited to the city of Ferguson. About 240 complaints are made against judges in the state of Missouri each year. When complaints are filed—and they can be, by citizens, city officials and other judges--they rarely result in disciplinary action. 

“Most of the complaints that we receive are from citizens who were involved in a lawsuit and it didn’t turn out the way they wanted,” said Skip Waltham, a Columbia-based attorney who serves as chairman for the state committee that processes complaints made against judges. “That isn’t something that we have any control over.”  

Complaints regarding Missouri judges can be filed by anyone and are heard by the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline. The six-member commission, which is comprised of two lawyers, two judges and two citizens, votes on how each case will proceed in a closed-door meeting. The commission itself cannot confirm or deny the existence of a complaint until it goes to a formal proceeding.  

“The process is very secretive,” said St. Louis University Law professor Brendan Roediger.  “Sometimes there were rumors around courthouses but that was about it.”

85 percent of cases have been dismissed without investigation since July of 1998, commission records show.

Out of nearly 3,500 cases between July, 1998 - June, 2014:

  • 96 complaints were dismissed with an informal reprimand or cease and desist order
  • 27 judges chose to resign, and the complaints were dismissed. “Judges are routinely offered the option of retiring before it goes to that stage,” Roediger said.
  • Four judges have received formal reprimands or suspension without pay—the most recent being Associate Circuit Judge Barbara Peebles in 2012.

The lack of complaints—and disciplinary action--is due to the legal community’s implicit acceptance of practices like ticket fixing, Roediger said. He and other lawyers have filed class action lawsuits over traffic fines and against the city of Ferguson. 
“The Bar has failed. We’ve all known that this goes on. Folks are afraid to be the one lawyer that stands up and says we shouldn’t be getting these deals while poor people are getting locked in cages,” Roediger said.