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Ferguson working group recommends big structural changes to municipal courts

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

A working group studying how to improve municipal courts in St. Louis is specifically recommending that the state Supreme Court force those courts to consolidate.

It was one of several recommendations finalized Tuesday by the Ferguson Commission's working group on municipal courts and governance. Members of the group considered consolidation at the request of Rich McClure, a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.

The policy recommendation reads:

"The Supreme Court of Missouri should take direct jurisdiction of municipal court functions through the associate circuit court, and consolidate them into an appropriate number of municipal courts for the efficient administration of justice."

"I think it's a very big deal, but I think it was the direction we were going in anyway," said Brendan Roediger, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has been involved in litigation against municipal courts. "Until we have full-time professional courts, it's going to be really hard to do any of the other creative, innovative things that we're talking about in terms of community justice."

Everyone present at the meeting agreed that consolidation was a worthy goal. But Monica Huddleston, the former mayor of Greendale, was not happy that commission members had interfered in the smaller group's work.

"We have been meeting as a working group talking about municipal court reforms," she said. "There are many municipal court reforms that have been made, not very many of which have either been acknowledged or discussed by the group, and we had all voices at the table at the last meeting where we voted on which recommendations we all thought were reasonable enough."

Huddleston said she was particularly concerned that many of the recommendations are now coming across as mandates on the cities when there will be no additional funding for them. The Ferguson Commission's suggestions will not have the force of law.

Municipal court and government officials are on the working group, but none was at Tuesday's meeting. There will be one additional meeting to tackle some of the remaining points of contention.

In addition to consolidation, the commission:

  • Recommended the expungment of all existing failure to appear warrants.
  • Recommended that the Missouri Supreme Court ethics rules on conflicts of interest apply to part-time court officials. Numerous investigations have revealed an overlapping web of prosecutors, judges and city attorneys who hold different roles in multiple cities.
  • Recommended that all municipalities implement a plan to provide medical and mental health services to anyone in custody in their jails.
  • Recommended that defendants not be held for more than four hours in one municipal jail for nonviolent offenses committed elsewhere.

The complete report of the Ferguson Commission is due on Sept. 15.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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