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Judge deals big blow to Ferguson-inspired municipal overhaul

Attorney David Pittinsky stands with mayors of numerous St. Louis County cities on Thursday. Pittinsky is leading a lawsuit against a state municipal overhaul.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Attorney David Pittinsky stands with mayors of numerous St. Louis County cities. Pittinsky is leading a lawsuit against a state municipal overhaul. A Cole County judge ruled that parts of the measure -- known as SB5 -- were unconstitutional.

Updated with decision to appeal - A Cole County judge has rejected major parts of the most significant public policy achievement in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death.

It’s a decision that serves a major victory for African-American-led St. Louis County municipalities, and likely places the future of municipal governance overhaul in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court.

At issue is a law widely known as “SB5,” the only major piece of Ferguson-related public policy that became law after Brown's shooting death. Supporters contended that aggressive ticketing poisoned relationships between police and African Americans. As a result, the legislature approved a measure that lowers the percentage of traffic-fine revenue cities can keep; sets new standards for St. Louis County cities and provides new guidelines for how municipal courts should operate.

But some municipal leaders in St. Louis County panned the overhaul as unfair -- especially African-American elected officials. That's because SB5 would have had the biggest financial impact in cities with majority African-American populations and elected officials -- while leaving wealthier cities relatively unscathed. Many north St. Louis County cities took part in a lawsuit that was filed after Gov. Jay Nixon signed SB5 into law.

On late Monday afternoon, Cole County Judge Jon Beetem ruled that several aspects of the municipal overhaul were unconstitutional. Beetem wrote that a provision barring St. Louis County cities from incorporating more than 12.5 percent of traffic fine revenue into their budgets, as opposed to 20 percent elsewhere in the state, was an unconstitutional special law. He also wrote that a slate of standards for St. Louis County cities was a special law and an unfunded mandate. And he ruled new reporting requirements for cities were an unfunded mandate.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Chris Koster announced he would appeal Beetem's ruling.

“SB 5 passed overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support, to stop municipalities from abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices," Koster said in a statement. "A municipality should not depend upon prosecuting its citizens in order to fund the cornerstone functions of government. We will appeal the circuit court’s ruling enjoining both the 12.5 percent cap for St. Louis County municipalities and the new standards for policing and budgetary issues. 

"SB 5 also lowered the cap for traffic-related revenue for all municipalities, from 30% to 20%. Under the circuit court’s ruling, this provision remains in effect," he added. "We encourage all parties to continue to work together to achieve the important goals of municipal court reform to protect all Missourians.”

Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that “as we continue to review today's ruling, I look forward to working with the legislature this session to make any changes that are needed to ensure this important law can be fully and fairly enforced.

“The historic reforms contained in Senate Bill 5, which passed the General Assembly with strong bipartisan support last year, took meaningful and much-needed steps to end the unacceptable abuses of the municipal court system in the St. Louis region and ensure all municipal courts in the state operate fairly, ethically and transparently,” Nixon said.


Normandy Mayor Patrick Green is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome. 

Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy were plaintiffs in the lawsuit against SB5.

He said Beetem’s ruling should serve as a lesson to lawmakers to include municipal leaders when developing legislation that affects towns and cities.

“I think everyone can come together as I said and come to the table,” Green said. “We weren’t invited to that table. We were kept away from it. And that was what’s insulting to me as an African American. Because it’s in my community. And basically it affects our community. And we said, ‘Let us come to the table and let us help you.’ No. No. No. [They said] ‘We know better than you – we’re going to tell you. We’re going to force it upon you. Self-impose it.’

“That’s insulting,” he added. “And it’s not just insulting. It’s unconstitutional.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican who handled the overhaul in the Senate, took a much dimmer view of Beetem’s ruling. 

Sen. Eric Schmitt
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Eric Schmitt

He said in a statement that the decision is “another example of why so many Missourians have lost faith in government, the justice system and big institutions because they make them feel powerless and used.”

“For years, citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks,” Schmitt said. “These same bureaucrats used the money they collected to hire an out-of-state attorney and lobbyists to fight the most significant municipal court reform ever enacted in Missouri. I contacted Attorney General Chris Koster and urged him to immediately appeal the circuit court ruling.  I am confident our bipartisan reform will pass the Missouri Supreme Court test."

Green said he wouldn’t be surprised if Koster appealed Beetem’s ruling – or if the Missouri Supreme Court  decided the final outcome. He said, “In order to save face, they’re going to make that call.”

But he said it may make more sense for lawmakers to simply make SB5's standards the same for every Missouri city -- as opposed to having different standards for St. Louis County's municipalities.

“We wanted fairness in this whole darn beginning – and we were not given it,” Green said. “If they want to have a real, sensible, reasonable approach to solutions, we would be happy – particularly the people who are affected by them in the most negative way – to have a conversation.” 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.