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Missouri chief justice urges lawmakers to help boost trust in judiciary

Chief Justice Paul Wilson, dressed in a black suit and red tie, shakes hands with lawmakers
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Wilson, center, greets lawmakers on Wednesday at the State of the Judiciary address at the state Capitol in Jefferson City.

Missouri’s chief justice urged lawmakers on Wednesday to help their constituents maintain trust in the judicial branch.

“If the public loses trust in the judicial branch and the rule of law, it will be because we — all of us in this room — failed to do our duty to safeguard one of the essential institutions created by our constitution,” Judge Paul C. Wilson said in his State of the Judiciary address to the Missouri House, Senate and several statewide elected officials. “So when you speak to your constituents, remember how important it is for them — and you — to understand and trust your judicial system.”

The court has weighed several contentious issues in recent years, including expansion of Medicaid, municipal court reform and the limit of collective bargaining for state employees. It has agreed to take a case weighing the authority of local and state health officials to issue public health orders and will likely be asked to consider the constitutionality of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which limits enforcement of federal gun laws.

Lawmakers will not always agree with the decision of the high court, Wilson said, and they have the right to tell their constituents they believe the judges got it wrong.

“But when you do, take a minute to explain that — even when you think we got it wrong — you know judges are just public servants like you,” he said. “They are doing their best to decide cases based on the facts and their best understanding of the law. I promise you that’s true.”

Surveys by the Pew Research Center have found that public approval of the U.S. Supreme Court has been declining in recent years, driven partly by its 2022 decision to overturn a constitutional right to an abortion. The research did not examine trust in state-level courts or the judiciary as a whole. But former state Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said those sentiments likely trickle down.

That’s why Wolff called it “shrewd” for Wilson to invite legislatures to go to local courthouses and meet local judges.

“That’s really where the rubber meets the road where the public is concerned,” he said. “That’s where the public sees the people who are in the judiciary.”

Calls for legislation

Wilson asked lawmakers for more practical assistance as well — by passing several pieces of legislation that he said will allow the judiciary to continue functioning.

First, Wilson said, lawmakers need to approve the cost-of-living increase Gov. Mike Parson requested in his supplemental budget. A House committee earlier this week stripped lawmakers and the governor from the pay raise provisions, a move that could ensure the adjustment for employees remains intact. The full chamber is expected to take an initial vote on Thursday.

“In addition, we are asking you to fund the overtime court clerks are already working to meet the unprecedented obligations imposed by the passage of Amendment 3 last fall,” he added.

Amendment 3, which legalized cannabis for adult use, also includes provisions that require the courts to expunge certain low-level marijuana convictions.

Wilson asked lawmakers to extend a sunset on a $7 filing fee that helps cover the cost of court automation. It’s set to expire Sept. 1, but there are multiple bills pushing that date to 2029. And he requested that lawmakers act to protect the private information of judges.

“We owe it to those who serve in Missouri’s judiciary not to wait until we learn — in the worst possible way — that we waited too long and did too little,” he said.

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