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Ferguson judge resigns, Missouri Supreme Court orders cases assigned to Appellate Judge Richter

Ferguson courthouse
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI

Ronald Brockmeyer, the municipal judge in Ferguson, has resigned less than a week after a scathing federal report called his court little more than an ATM for the city. And the Missouri Supreme Court has ordered all Ferguson municipal court cases transferred to Judge Roy L. Richter of the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri.

In a statement, Brockmeyer denied that he had been unfair to defendants who appeared before him, deflecting most of the blame to the court clerk and the police chief. Nonetheless, he said, he recognized that the DOJ report had "diminished the public confidence in the Ferguson municipal court."

"Mr. Brockmeyer believes that it is paramount to begin immediately on promoting the public's confidence in the Ferguson municipal court. Promoting the public confidence in the Ferguson municipal court will help Ferguson begin its healing process and enable it to continue as a viable and vibrant community."

Brockmeyer is also out as the prosecutor of Dellwood. Mayor Reggie Jones said he asked for Brockmeyer's resignation on Sunday.

"I think he's made our courts a little more efficient as far as the process," Jones said. "But in light of what happened in our neighboring city, I just didn't think it was a good idea to have our city associated with those types of actions that are doing on next door."

Brockmeyer remains the municipal judge in Breckenridge Hills, and the prosecutor in Vinita Park and Florissant. However, Florissant Mayor Tom Schneider told St. Louis Public Radio that he asked Brockmeyer to take a leave of absence. He said earlier on Tuesday that he was consulting with other city officials about whether to keep him as Florissant's prosecutor.

 In addition to ousting Brockmeyer, Jones announced that Dellwood's municipal court will be granting "full amnesty" for all traffic tickets issued before April 11, 2012 -- the last day that the tiny city had its own police department. 

A full amnesty program for traffic offenders serve as fair and proper justice in light of the mayor’s recent review of the city’s court system.  Mayor Jones feels that other amnesty programs have simply recycled individuals right back into the same system.  Our current court system is clogged up with traffic cases difficult to prosecute since disbanding our own police department on April 11, 2012 and alternative efforts to prosecute them have been unsuccessful.  The city of Dellwood contracted with St. Louis County Police Department for full police services on April 12, 2012.  It is in the city’s best interest to unclog our court system and start with a fresh slate since the start of the new police contract.  The amnesty program will be effective March 20, 2015. 

Roy L. Richter, Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District
Credit Official photo
The Missouri Supreme Court has assigned all pending and future cases from the municipal court in Ferguson to Missouri Court of Appeals judge Roy Richter, effective March 16

Appellate judge steps in 

Judge Richter will start hearing cases in Ferguson on March 16. He'll also have wide latitude to reform Ferguson's court procedures. 

"Judge Richter will bring a fresh, disinterested perspective to this court's practices, and he is able and willing to implement needed reforms," chief judge Mary Russell said in a statement. The court is also supplying administrative staff to help review Ferguson's policies and help Richter make the needed changes. 

“'Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis,'” Russell said.

The Supreme Court's decision received high marks from state House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis and fellow Democrat Brandon Ellington of Kansas City, chairman of the legislative black caucus.

"Public trust in the system is impossible when constitutional rights are commonly violated and justice is rare. The problems with the Ferguson municipal court’s operations are too disturbing to be allowed to continue, and we appreciate the Supreme Court’s swift and appropriate action to begin restoring integrity to the city’s system of justice," the two men said.

In his own statement, Gov. Jay Nixon called the Supreme Court's "strong and appropriate" actions "a solid step forward."

"Courts are a vital part of our democracy, and our court system is built on the trust of the citizens it serves," Nixon said.

Brendan Roediger of the Saint Louis University law clinic was less impressed.

"It's the supervisory authority that we've been asking the Supreme Court to utilize all along," he said. "I certainly don't believe that Brockmeyer is the worst municipal court judge. I hope the Supreme Court uses this power to look at other courts and to take similar measures with other courts."

Pending reforms

Richter, the appeals judge who will hear cases from Ferguson, chairs the Municipal Judge Education Committee and is a strong supporter of the work being pushed by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee. In a Jan. 14 letter to the volunteer group, he wrote, "No system is so 'good' that it can't be improved, and I am a firm believer that those within the system are in a better position to propose and enact positive improvements than to have 'improvements' come from the outside."

The group, comprised mostly of court personnel, has drafted a series of voluntary reforms, including making volunteer lawyers available for defendants and encouraging the use of community service instead of fines when defendants can't pay. It also wants to draft uniform procedures for payments plans, which are required in some circumstances by a new Supreme Court rule that takes effect in July.

Advocates for municipal court defendants, such as Roediger and Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders, say the reforms proposed by the court improvement committee don't go far enough. The two men were in Jefferson City on Monday asking that all municipal court cases be transferred to state courts, where professional judges are more familiar with court procedures.

"There's also a judge available at all times, so people won't be sitting for days at a time without having the ability to have bail reviewed," Roediger said. 

Roediger and Harvey are representing plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits against municipal courts, mostly in north county. Attorney General Chris Koster has also sued cities that violate the state law limiting how much revenue they can take in from court fines and fees. State auditor Tom Schweich announced a review of several municipal courts, including Ferguson, in October -- it's not clear how his death will affect those audits.

Legislative efforts are also under way to reduce the limit on court fines and fees from 30 percent of a city's budget to as low as 10 percent. In September,  Ferguson passed its own ordinance limiting municipal court revenue to 15 percent of its general fund budget. The city appears to be slightly above that self-imposed limit for fiscal year 2015.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.