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What’s next for municipal court reform? A conversation with Starsky Wilson and Thomas Harvey

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Rev. Starsky Wilson and Thomas Harvey

On Wednesday, St. Louis on the Air hosted a discussion with Rev. Starsky Wilson and Thomas Harvey about municipal court reform. Wilson was a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission and is president and CEO at the Deaconess Foundation. Harvey is the co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

Recently, Wilson co-authored a statement with Rich McClure urging the Missouri Supreme Court to act on consolidating municipal courts in the region. Wilson and Harvey had also recently been to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Civil Rights Commission about municipal courts-related issues. On Monday, a Cole County judge rejected major parts of the law widely known as SB5, which was a step forward in municipal court reform. More background on that here.

“My hope this week is that there is a rigorous defense and appeal of Senate Bill 5 to a higher court by the attorney general’s office and they will put the resources appropriately behind the bill,” said Wilson. “The law has several components. If folks are suggesting one component of this bill is inappropriate, then others should absolutely stay in place. There is more context to the discussion. It is not the time for weeping or gnashing of teeth on one side or grand celebrating on the other, but it is time to push this to where it should have been before, at the feet of the Missouri Supreme Court.”

Harvey said it is not clear yet what the Cole County judge’s decision will mean for Senate Bill 5.

“It is declared that the 12.5 percent cap on revenue is unconstitutional as special law but it is worth noting that the Missouri code is filled with special laws,” Harvey said. “I’m wondering what the implications are for the other laws that are on the books right now.”

Wilson said it was important for people to remember there are other portions of the law besides the revenue cap.

“There are municipal standards, certifications for police departments, there are protections and guards for public safety here,” Wilson said. “As much as folks have attempted to frame this as a discussion about discrimination because there is a different percentage of revenue, that is a bit of a red herring.”

Harvey said that the Missouri Supreme Court is “seeking a way to avoid having a responsibility to weigh in on this.” Wilson said that because the municipal courts fall under the supervisory responsibility of the Supreme Court, that’s where the authority to make municipal court changes lies.

Wilson said that it falls to the judicial sector to protect Senate Bill 5 and that the legislature had done “something extraordinary,” when it originally passed the bill. “This falls squarely at the feet of the court,” he continued.

"Some of the problems we're looking at don't need a fix because they are already unlawful."

For Harvey, the idea that we should be looking to the court or to the legislature to fix the municipal courts is off-base.

“Some of the problems we’re looking at don’t need a fix because they are already unlawful,” Harvey said. “They’ve been unlawful for 30 years. It is clear, unconstitutional law. Things like, you can’t jail a poor person simply because they were unable to make a payment. That’s bedrock law. To make an analogy, Don, it would be as if a judge jailed a person who didn’t have the ability to make the payment , and said ‘I didn’t know that was the law,’ would be like you after how many years of doing this show not knowing where to turn the microphone on. Or Starsky not knowing where the Bibles are or a math teacher not knowing what 2+2 is. That’s as fundamental as it can possibly get.”

Listen to the full conversation with Harvey and Wilson here:

“Have we seen a vast chasm and vacuum of leadership in the social sector by elected officials? Yes,” said Wilson. “ … Now, it is unfortunately mixed with a lack of political courage in an election year in an attempt to wipe away the people’s voices.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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