© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Experts say municipal court reforms are coming, but don't know how or what

falkow | Flickr

The Missouri Supreme Court’s decisive and unexpected Ferguson reforms Monday - on top of the Justice Department’s devastating critique of the town’s municipal courts last week - have created momentum toward major reform of the St. Louis County municipal courts, experts say.

Brendan Roediger, a Saint Louis University law professor who has been active challenging municipal court practices, thinks enough momentum is building that the municipal courts may be abolished.

“I honestly believe that the momentum is heading toward abolition,” he said in an interview. “… People are starting to realize you can’t fix a system with 450 000 outstanding warrants and it’s probably going to be better to wipe the slate clean.”

Thomas Harvey, whose ArchCity Defenders group has championed municipal court reform, agreed. “On March 9, 2015, changes that Saint Louis University School of Law and ArchCity Defenders have repeatedly called for came closer to reality,” he said in a statement. “…The Missouri Senate, the Missouri Supreme Court, and the United States Congress all have proposals before them to fundamentally alter the municipal courts and police.”

Frank J. Vatterott, a municipal court judge in Overland and head of the Municipal Court Improvement Committee, agrees there is momentum for change but doesn’t think it will go so far as abolition.

“I frankly don’t think a wholesale change like that that is going to pass muster. I understand what Roediger is saying but he represents the poor in a small fraction of the courts. He doesn’t look at the 350,000 tickets that are paid every year. There is nothing wrong with the courts in Maryland Heights or Creve Coeur or Richmond Heights. Those courts work very well. Those cities should have the right to enforce their ordinances.”

Vatterott predicted that the Missouri Supreme Court would set standards for municipal courts to meet and that municipalities that fall short would see their cases transferred to St. Louis County. “But that will be like 10 municipalities, not 80,” he said.

Missouri Supreme Court acts

The Missouri Supreme Court’s statement Monday and a follow-up statement Tuesday outline a two-pronged action:

1. Further revisions of Rule 37 prescribing how the municipal courts are to treat ordinance violations. Earlier this year the court ordered municipalities to give poor people more time to pay fines without going to jail. The court reiterated Tuesday that it “continues to review specific recommendations for further changes to Rule 37.”

2. A set of “best practices for issues that are not well-suited to a one-size-fits-all
 rulemaking approach.”

Monday afternoon, the court abruptly transferred Missouri appellate judge Roy Richter to St. Louis County Circuit Court to hear all Ferguson municipal violations. (See Ferguson judge resigns, Missouri Supreme Court orders cases assigned to Appellate Judge Richter)

The decision came as Ronald J. Brockmeyer resigned as municipal court judge in Ferguson. See Ferguson pledges to work with new judge, will hire its own as well) The Justice Department had sharply criticized Brockmeyer for operating the court as a revenue machine and for seeking to have his own red-light camera case dropped by a nearby municipality.

Another view of Brockmeyer

Vatterott said it “is a very safe bet Ron was going to be told to step down if he didn’t resign. … He soul searched it for several days.  … He’s had these death threats and all this hateful email.  … He’s got a family … I know he took counsel with another appellate judge, not Richter, who told him it wasn’t worth it. “The Supreme Court hasn’t had this situation before,” Vatterott added. “They have had individual naughty judges. But this is the first time they were going to remove somebody for how he operated his court.”

Vatterott defended Brockmeyer noting he was “a big hero in Vietnam. His leg was all shot up. When we started law school the very first day I remember somebody dropped off this tall man with crutches who dropped his books. That was Ron. He’s has had a tough life.”

The Missouri Supreme Court clarified Tuesday that Richter is independent of Ferguson. “Judge Richter will not report to the city,” the court said in a statement answering questions from St. Louis Public Radio. “He is a state judge who will be hearing the city's municipal division cases and implementing policies and procedures to ensure that municipal division respects the rights of the individuals who come before it.”

The court made clear that Richter’s role would not sideline St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Maura McShane, who as presiding judge has oversight over the 81 municipal courts in the county. Vatterott’s committee reports to her.

“There is no reason to suggest he (Richter) and Judge McShane will not continue to work in collaboration with one another,” the court statement said.

Supreme Court action a surprise

Some of those active in municipal court reform were pleasantly surprised by the court’s strong action Monday.

Chief Judge Mary R. Russell
Credit Official photo
Chief Judge Mary R. Russell

Before the Justice Department report, Chief Justice Mary Russell had talked about the legislature and local municipalities taking the lead. Supporters of major reforms took hope from the court’s strong language Monday about the “extraordinary action” warranted to “restore public trust and confidence” in Ferguson and the court’s plans to examine “reforms that are needed on a statewide basis.”

Karen Tokarz, a professor at Washington University who has been active in proposing reforms, said the court was “to be commended for taking steps to restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division by assigning Judge Richter … to hear Ferguson’s municipal cases going forward - and to implement any needed reforms to court policies and procedures in Ferguson ‘to ensure that the rights of defendants are respected and to help restore the integrity of the system.’”

Tokarz said Russell was right to highlight the importance of municipal court as Missourians’ first  – and sometimes their only – impression of the legal system.

It may be time, she added, to abolish some or all of the small municipal courts in St. Louis County and send the municipal cases to St. Louis County Circuit Court.

“Given the myriad of problems, given the growing public mistrust and given the inefficiencies, consolidation into the circuit court has to be on the table. It may be time for the abolition of the small municipal courts in the name of justice and fairness and efficiency.

“But just because it may make sense to abolish the small municipal courts doesn’t necessarily mean it is legal or prudent,” she said. “The challenge is balancing local control with individual rights. And there seems to be a desire on the part of many to leave it to local levels of government or the legislature to try and fix the problems.”

Tokarz said she is researching whether the Missouri Supreme Court or the Missouri Legislature would have the legal authority to eliminate a municipal court set up by a municipality formed under terms of the constitution and relevant statutes.

“The action of the Supreme Court yesterday as to Ferguson suggests the court believes it has the power to make major changes, in some instances; but, whether that includes wholesale abolition of the small, municipal courts is an unanswered question.”

Case for abolition

Roediger, the SLU law professor, thinks that both the legislature and the Missouri Supreme Court have the power to abolish the municipal courts.

Roediger testified Monday before the Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee proposing that the legislature pass a bill that would transfer all municipal violations to St. Louis County Circuit Court unless a municipality chose to contract with the county regional municipal courts. There are three regional county municipal courts, all of which function well, he said.

He emphasized that he is not proposing the elimination of traffic law enforcement, just enforcement in properly operated courts. He also noted that Illinois does not have a separate system of municipal courts.

Roediger acknowledges that the state constitution provides for municipal court judges, but only those judges “provided by law.” That gives “free range” to the legislature to eliminate municipal judges,” he said.

During the Senate hearing on Monday, senators asked Roediger why the Missouri Supreme Court didn’t just fix the problem instead of the legislature.

Roediger agreed that the Missouri Supreme Court could make the changes by using its broad “superintending” power over the courts. But he said “it would be more appropriate as a long term solution for the legislature to act.”

One move that Supreme Court could make, said Roediger, would be to appoint a “special master” to recommend whether the municipal courts should continue to exist and what should be changed. A special master is a highly respected lawyer appointed by a court to study issues involving policy and legal questions.

Roediger and Vatterott agree that one of the needed reforms is to treat more municipal violations – such as failure to have license plates – as infractions for which there is no jail time. Then if a person fails to pay, the state institutes legal collection proceedings but can’t impose jail time.

Cleaver proposal

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Kansas City, announced this week that he would introduce the Fair Justice Actmaking it a civil rights violation punishable by up to five years in prison to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue.

Cleaver said he was acting in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma voting rights march and in reaction to the Justice Department’s Ferguson report.  He noted that Jennings also has been accused imposing fines on mostly poor, black defendants and that the practice is widespread around the country.

Harvey and Roediger applauded the Cleaver bill noting they had traveled to Washington last December to meet with member of the Congressional Black Caucus and discuss federal legislation.

“This legislation takes seriously the impact for-profit police and courts have on the poor and communities of color in America and proposes serious consequences for their continued use,” said Roediger.

Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University, said that his top-of-the-head opinion is that Congress probably doesn’t have the authority to pass the bill as Cleaver outlined it.

“Just running a court system to raise money, just that alone I can’t believe would be enough to justify it constitutionally because how is that a violation of due process?”

He noted that the Supreme Court has been “very strict” in limiting Congress’ power to enforce due process requirements on the states through Section 5 of the 14th Amendment.

“Without some additional constitutional hook they couldn’t do it,” he said.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.