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Commission to pursue 'racial and ethnic fairness' in Missouri legal system

Three finalists have been announced today to fill a vacancy on the Missouri Supreme Court.
Flickr | david_shane
Three finalists have been announced today to fill a vacancy on the Missouri Supreme Court.

A new commission set up by the Missouri Supreme Court will examine ways to ensure that minorities receive fair and just treatment from the state's court systems and legal profession.

Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge announced the formation of the commission at a recent Missouri Bar meeting in St. Louis. She cited findings in two Department of Justice reports, one on Ferguson and the other on St. Louis County's juvenile division, as reasons for forming the commission.

"The ... juvenile report raised issues including racial disparity in the disposition of cases, insufficient legal representation for juvenile offenders, and questions about our juvenile court structure," Breckenridge said. "While some of these issues may be pervasive throughout the country, this does not diminish them."

The commission's focus will include:

  • The existence and impact of any racial and ethnic bias and/or disparities within the judicial system and the practice of law
  • Changes to court rules, regulations, laws and/or practices to improve meaningful access to or participation in the judicial system and the practice of law by racial and ethnic minorities
  • Measures to ensure that all persons within the judicial system and practice of law refrain from manifesting bias or prejudice, by words or conduct, based on race or ethnicity
  • Measures to address any implicit or other bias within the judicial system and legal profession
  • The availability of effective legal representation for racial and ethnic minorities within the judicial system
  • Measures to enhance racial and ethnic diversity in the selection, retention and promotion of judicial officers, court staff and professionals in the legal community
  • Measures to enhance understanding of the practices, procedures and proper role of the state's courts

"We all need to do everything we can to ensure that every individual in every case in our system of justice is treated with respect and has his or her case adjudicated fairly and impartially according to the law," Breckenridge said. "Until that is true in 100 percent of our courts, we cannot rest. Even a perception of justice denied anywhere should concern us all, no matter who or where we are."
When she announced the commission, Breckenridge gave credit to Judge George Draper and Missouri Bar President Reuben Shelton.  

The commission will file its initial report by June first of next year, followed by annual reports at the end of each calendar year. It's co-chaired by appeals court judge Lisa White Hardwick, St. Louis attorney William Bay, and Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor at the University of Missouri – Columbia.

The order establishing the commission includes the names of all 52 members. Those from the St. Louis area include Salim Elias Awad, Susan Block, Winston Calvert, Gerard Carmody, Patrick Chavez, Keith Cheung, Gonzalo Fernandez, Erica L. Freeman, Sandra Hemphill, Levell D. Littleton, Annette Llewellyn, Susan McGraugh, Kimberly Norwood, Geetha Rao Sant, Booker T. Shaw, Annette Slack, Karen Tokarz, Lynn Ann Vogel and Michael L. Walton.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court also created a work group to focus on municipal courts in Missouri.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.