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Working group studying municipal court reforms hears overwhelming call for consolidation

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Members of the working group created to study and propose reforms to municipal courts in Missouri heard from three main camps at a public hearing on Thursday, which stretched for nearly three hours.

One believes the system is fine, and many of the problems identified are being addressed. Another acknowledges there are problems, but wants to keep reforms local. The third, and largest by far, wants the Supreme Court to force the consolidation of municipal courts.

"This is a crisis situation," said Nabeehah Azeez, with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment. "I'm not sure how the people in the St. Louis region have been able to tolerate this system for so long, living in places where there are debtors prisons, where cities are operating off the backs of their poor and marginalized."

Then-Missouri Chief Judge Mary Russell created the working group back in May to make "recommendations concerning any appropriate changes to court rules or practices that can be implemented by the Court as well as any suggestions that may require legislation or action by other entities." After the group released its interim report in September, Chief Judge Patricia Breckenridge narrowed its focus to four key areas:

  • The propriety of judges, prosecutors and staff serving in different capacities in multiple municipal divisions;
  • The consolidation of municipal divisions, including any authority of the Supreme Court to mandate consolidation;
  • The use of warrants, process for setting bonds, and time of incarceration;
  • The enforceability of judgments and remedies for not paying fines.

At the hearing Thursday night in downtown St. Louis, the smallest group, mostly led by municipal court officials, felt the system was fine and many of the problems were being addressed.
"We’re working very hard on making these courts better," said Michael Gunn, a municipal judge in Manchester. "It would be an absolute sin to destroy this great benefit that we have, and other major cities in the United States would love to have, and that is local government solving local problems."

Mark Levitt, Manchester's municipal prosecutor who also serves as a municipal judge in Rock Hill, said advocates for consolidation simply needed additional information about the municipal court system.

"There are remedies for any illegal or improper treatment by either a judge, court administrator or prosecutors," he said. "While there are some problems with Senate Bill 5, it provides for some of the remedies for the problems we've heard about today."

But Roz Brown, who said she had been targeted for code violations by Pine Lawn police for political reasons, said Senate Bill 5 won't actually work without consolidation. 

"What's occurring right now is that municipalities are finding another way to prey upon communities," she said. "They have reduced the ticketing practices and bench warrants, but housing code violations have increased." Last week, lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest group, filed a federal civil rights complaint against Pagedale for that practice.

"I don’t believe that any of are here tonight because the presiding judge in St. Louis County is incapable of properly managing courts," said David Leipholtz, the director of community based studies at Better Together, which has put out several reports critical of the region's fragmented governance. "I do believe that we are here because the current system in St. Louis County is incapable of being managed by anyone."

"Why should the reform come from the top down?" asked Karl DeMarce, an associate circuit judge from Scotland County, in the state's northeast corner. "Why should it not come from the people themselves fielding candidates for city councils who run on a platform of reform?"

"The reason everyone's here tonight is that they've given up on that system," Leipholtz replied.

DeMarce's preference for reforms made at the local level was picked up by Caroline Ban, the manager of government affairs for Beyond Housing. The group, which works primarily in North County, has launched an effort to consolidate the 24 municipal courts in the footprint of the Normandy school district.

"I'm not defending the status quo," she said. "The abuse and the stories that we are hearing are real, and they are wrong. I want to put another perspective out there and see if there are other ways to encourage creative solutions to local problems that we see."

The working group has one more public hearing scheduled for December in Kansas City. A final report is due in March.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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