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'Transformative' or more of the same? Perspectives vary on new municipal court standards

Maryland Heights resident Dan Hyatt speaks before the Ferguson Commission about his experience dealing with the municipal court system in Breckenridge Hills.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

Municipal courts across Missouri are starting to figure out how to comply with new operating rules issued by the state Supreme Court.

The high court released the 16-page rule last week. In a speech to the annual meeting of the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri, Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge, said they "make clear how municipal divisions must operate."

"The standards are extensive, and will guide the constitutionally required supervision by the presiding judge of each circuit and the Supreme Court," Breckenridge said, according to a transcript of her remarks posted on the court's website. "I expect some standards may be unpopular. Often, tough things are. People don't like change."

The court outlined 10 minimum standards, most of which reference state laws or court operating rules that are already in place:

  • The decision to hold an individual in jail should be made "strictly in accordance with the principles of due process of law."

For example, the division must have a judge available at all times to rule on bail, warrants and conditions of pretrial release. Warrants should be issued only if the defendant will not show up to court otherwise or presents a danger to the community. No one should be sentenced to jail for minor traffic or municipal ordinance violations.

  • Municipal divisions have to ask defendants if they are indigent, and allow for payment plans, alternative payment options or community service.
  • A judicial hearing or the granting of probation must not be contingent on a defendant paying fines or fees.
  • Municipal divisions shall not assess or collect unauthorized fines, court costs or surcharges. Fines and costs assessed on traffic violations shall not exceed $225, and indigent defendants will not have to pay court costs.

The city of St. Louis recently settled a lawsuit over a warrant recall fee it had charged for decades, despite the lack of state authorization. Similar lawsuits are pending against Ferguson, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston, Normandy, Kansas City, Florissant and St. John.

  • All municipal judges must be lawfully selected, authorized to act in specific cases and adequately prepared for their duties.
  • Municipal courts "shall be operated in a manner reasonable convenient to the public and in facilities sufficient to the purpose."

The courtroom must be large enough to accommodate the number of people who have cases scheduled, and children must be allowed in the courtroom. The rule also requires the court to make case information available online, or to be moving in that direction.

  • Municipal divisions should be operated under the constitutional provisions of separation of powers.

Court employees must not perform any functions that are, or could appear to be, a conflict of interest. For example, the same person could not be both the city clerk and the clerk of the municipal court, or the court clerk and the clerk for the police department.
The rule also makes it clear that court personnel must be insulated from political pressure and answer only to judicial-branch employees. Finally, the court's "exterior and interior signage, design, functionality and other factors [must] convey an appearance to the public that it is a separate and independent branch of government."

  • Municipal courts must operate in accordance with open records and open court requirements.
  • Defendants must be advised of their rights in municipal courts.
  • Every six months, the municipal courts must submit compliance reports to their presiding judge.

Mixed reactions

"This is a brand new rule. This is something totally different," said Christopher Graville, a municipal prosecutor in a half-dozen cities in the St. Louis area. "I think it's transformative because it's going to help people see [the municipal court] as a separate function. What I think the Supreme Court did here was take into account the entire municipal court experience."

Better Together’s Dave Leipholtz, Washington University law school professor Mae Quinn and Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders speak at Monday's Ferguson Commission meeting.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo
Better Together’s Dave Leipholtz, Mae Quinn, then with Washington University law school, and Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders speak at a Ferguson Commission meeting.

David Leipholtz, the director of community-based studies with the lobbying group Better Together, had a much less rosy view.

"The problem isn’t that no one knew what to do, it’s that they weren’t doing it," Leipholtz said. "The problem with the system, which ripples out to further problems, is that you can’t supervise it."

Richard Sheets, the deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, said his members welcome the new rules. Municipal court reform, he said, should have always been in the hands of the Supreme Court, rather than lawmakers in Jefferson City.

"The mood is trying to understand what does this mean," he said. "The vast majority of our courts are outstate, and the municipal court clerk may be the city clerk, and they're the only personnel in the city. It's really a fear of new rules and not being able to comply with them."

The rule takes effect July 1 of next year. The Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges Association, an educational group for lower-level judges, has sent it to its members, and plans at least one regional seminar on its requirements.

Listen: Legal Roundtable panelists discuss the new rule on St. Louis on the Air.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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