FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Municipal Court Reform is Focus of Day-long Workshop in Ferguson
Nearly 250 Judges, Clerks and Legal Experts Share Best Practices to Achieve
Minimum Operating Standards, Restore Public Confidence in Courts
Ferguson, MO – Nov. 10, 2017 – Nearly 250 municipal court clerks, court administrators and judges gathered in Ferguson last week for an educational workshop designed to help St. Louis County’s 77 municipal divisions comply with mandatory minimum state operating standards promulgated by the Missouri Supreme Court.
Held on the campus of Florissant Valley Community College, the workshop was led and organized by St. Louis County Presiding Judge Douglas R. Beach, with support from the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, the National Center for State Courts and the State Justice Institute.
Part problem-solving session and part motivational seminar, the eight-hour workshop featured presentations by legal experts, current municipal clerks and judges, legal scholars and historians, and Judges Patricia Breckenridge and W. Brent Powell of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Each workshop participant was given a copy of a comprehensive new handbook of information to help municipal division judges and employees understand and comply with the new Missouri Supreme Court minimum court operating standards. The handbook, a year in the making, was compiled by a committee of circuit court judges, municipal court judges, prosecutors and clerks under Judge Beach’s direction.
Although historically they have operated independently, municipal courts are, in fact, divisions of the circuit court. As Presiding Judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit, Judge Beach has embraced the challenge of reforming the dozens of municipal divisions in St. Louis County, some of which were notorious for denying citizens’ rights.
“We are trying to change a culture – not just processes and procedures – where people are expecting to follow the rules,” Judge Beach said. “The courts are an independent branch of government, and not out there to raise money for the cities.”
For decades, some municipalities in St. Louis County had used their police departments to generate revenue to keep inefficient city operations afloat. Others ran their municipal courts like debtors’ prisons, jailing indigent citizens for days or even weeks when they were unable to pay fines for minor offenses like broken tail lights or uncut grass, wreaking havoc on their personal lives. And if folks missed a court date, their fines kept growing.
With Missouri Supreme Court minimum operating standards put in place in 2016, and Local Court Rule 69 enacted this year to compel reform, the hard work of change is well underway.
“I was excited to be part of the team facilitating a training to ensure our municipal divisions are operating uniformly, but most importantly fairly, for all our residents,” said Ferguson council member Wesley Bell. Bell is a prosecutor with the consolidated courts housed in St. Ann, and heads the Criminal Justice Department at Florissant Valley Community College.
For more than a year since being elected presiding judge, Judge Beach has taken a hands-on approach to supervising the operations of St. Louis County’s municipal divisions, with the assistance of Missouri Supreme Court Monitors Courtney Whiteside and Washington University Professor of Law Karen Tokarz. Whiteside is a former court clerk and former Management Analyst in the Municipal and Traffic Unit at the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator. Tokarz served on the municipal courts committee of the Ferguson Commission, appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon after the death of Michael Brown in 2014 to seek solutions to systemic inequities, and currently serves on the National Center for State Courts National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices.
Judge Powell praised the municipal judges and clerks for working to improve the operations of the municipal divisions and restore confidence in the municipal courts by changing attitudes as well as court practices.
“What you do on a daily basis is so important to all of us,” Judge Powell said. “Despite the criticism and the demanding changes, you have come back to work to make our courts better. Because you all are willing to be the face of the judiciary… that will restore the public’s confidence in our third branch of government. I am confident that St. Louis County will be a model for others to follow.”
The loss of public confidence in government institutions – including police and the courts – is a nationwide problem, not limited to St. Louis County, Tokarz said. Although the death of Michael Brown brought that dissatisfaction into the spotlight, it has been smoldering for decades, she said. According to Tokarz, restoring public trust requires a renewed commitment to the four fundamental principles that undergird the Constitution, and by extension, the way courts operate: fairness, transparency, access, and accountability.
Judge Powell noted that the only interaction many citizens ever have with the judicial branch of government is in the municipal courts. Missouri statistics bear that out. Of the approximately 1.85 million civil cases filed at the circuit level across Missouri last year, just over 728,000 were filed in circuit courts, while nearly 1.12 million – or approximately 60 percent – were filed in municipal divisions.
Because of that fact, municipal courts bear a special responsibility to respect the rights of individuals and promote justice throughout every stage of the judicial process. Research has repeatedly shown that how people are treated in court is just as important as what a judge ultimately decides, Judge Beach said.
“First and foremost, that means treating people with respect and fairness. From the minute someone receives a citation and walks in the door of the courthouse, they should experience a professional operation,” Judge Beach said. “That means not seeing a prosecutor acting chummy with a judge on the dais, not being met with hostility, not seeing attorneys, judges and prosecutors changing roles from one municipality to the next, and not viewing courts as revenue generators.”
In 2016, the Missouri Legislature lowered the cap on revenue from minor traffic violations, which can now only make up 20 percent of a city’s general operating revenue. Almost all municipalities in St. Louis County are reportedly in compliance. Tickets are down, warrants are down, jailing is down, and revenue is down across the County.
As a result, some municipalities are facing falling revenues at the same time as the cost of complying with minimum court operating standards is rising. Those costs include hiring separate clerks for prosecuting attorneys; maintaining separate files and offices space; retaining records; creating or upgrading court websites; improving courtroom access, and maintaining physically separate entrances for police and courts.
Financial pressures, along with other benefits of joint operations, have incentivized the development of consolidations among some of the county’s 77 municipal divisions, such as those that have developed in St. Ann and Normandy. Vinita Park, Charlack, Northwoods, Wellston, and Beverly Hills have consolidated their municipal divisions with the St. Ann municipal division. Nine municipalities are now partnered with the Normandy municipal division. Other consolidations are being explored.
Still, significant challenges remain. There are still instances of non-compliance with the current rules such as judges failing to report their progress in reaching the revised standards; judges and prosecutors being pressured to increase municipal revenues; courtrooms that are not open to people of all ages, or too small; clerks working at the behest of municipal officials when acting in their capacity as court clerks; no court website; no free online access to information on pending cases, outstanding warrants and dockets; failure to assess whether residents are indigent; failure to offer payment plans or community service alternatives; and missing monthly bank reconciliations.
Bringing each and every municipal division in St. Louis County up to par will take time, Beach said, but that is the goal and failure is not an option. “We are fully committed to providing everyone with the tools they need to change the courts, to protecting the rights of all no matter what it takes, and to changing the perceptions of those inside and outside the system of what our municipal divisions are going to do,” Judge Beach said. “We are going forward; we are never going back.”