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Municipal court working group leaves consolidation up to the Legislature

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

A working group created by the Missouri Supreme Court to recommend changes to the municipal courts is rejecting the idea that the state's highest court can force the smaller ones to consolidate.

"Under the Missouri Constitution, the Supreme Court of Missouri does not possess the authority to mandate consolidation of municipal courts,"reads the report, which was released on Tuesday. "Even if the Supreme Court should determine that the Missouri Constitution grants it the authority to mandate consolidation of municipal courts, there are powerful jurisprudential, political and practical considerations which would counsel against using such authority."

Then-chief judge Mary Russell created the working group in May 2015. Chief judge Patricia Breckenridge narrowed its scope in September to four main issues:

  1. Whether it was proper for attorneys to serve as judges and prosecutors in multiple municipalities;
  2. Whether it would be practical or constitutional for the Supreme Court to mandate consolidation of municipal courts;
  3. How the courts use bonds and warrants, and how long people spend in jail because they cannot pay;
  4. What remedies the courts have if defendants can't pay their fines and fees.

Conflicts of interest

The report found that an attorney serving as a prosecutor in one municipality and the judge in a neighboring one is not technically a conflict of interest under current court rules. But as "there is at least a very strong appearance of impropriety," the working group recommended the Supreme Court pass rules that block attorneys from serving as municipal prosecutors and judges in the same county.

Warrants and incarceration

The working group's members placed blame for a dysfunctional warrant system on state law that allows courts to serve as economic engines for their cities, law enforcement agencies who exploit their residents under pressure from municipal officials, and municipal court personnel who ignore open records and open court rules. Though consolidation was not among the options considered, the group did note that full-time courts could solve many of the documented problems. 

The report also calls on the circuit judges to better supervise the courts they oversee, and for prosecutors to review all case files and drop most charges issued before Jan. 1, 2014. Periodic reviews of cases are also recommended.

The working group took a dim view of calls to eliminate or limit the use of cash-only bonds. "Although cash-only bonds may be subject to abuse, when properly used they offer significant benefits for both the court system and individual defendants," the report said. 

Municipal court judgments

Some working group members were also highly dismissive of reform efforts at the legislative and federal court levels.

"Recent legal developments, including litigation settlements such as that in Jennings and the passage of Senate Bill 5, have raised serious concerns relating to the legal authority and the practical capability to enforce municipal ordinances and municipal court judgments and orders."

Internal dissents

Much like a court opinion, the working group's reports includes concurrences and outright dissents. Members of the group from Springfield and Kansas City questioned the assumption that all the state's municipal courts are in need of reform. Edward "Chip" Robertson, a Jefferson City attorney and a chair of the working group, pegged most of the documented concerns to the "perverse economic incentives" that exist. 

"And in nearly every city where the dysfunction exists, the burden of abuse has fallen on a largely African-American citizenry. But race, while an easy identifier, is a misleading one in this case," he said.

Kimberly Norwood, a professor of law and African-American studies at Washington University, wrote a dissent arguing for the authority of the Supreme Court to force consolidation.

"The Constitution does not specifically state that the court can mandate consolidation," she said. "It similarly does not state that the court cannot mandate consolidation." (Emphasis in original.)

"I think the entire report is an embarrassment," said Brendan Roediger a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a prominent critic of municipal courts. "I think it's worse than inaction. I believe that much of the litigation filed by Arch City, by myself, and by others was moving these courts in a direction towards abiding by the Constitution. I think this really emboldens those who want to keep making money off the backs of poor people."

The Supreme Court said in a statement that it had received the report and was reviewing it carefully. There is no timeframe within which the judges must adopt any of the recommended changes.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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