Municipal Court Reform or Sneaky Maneuver?

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. – John Adams

About 200 municipal judges, prosecutors and court administrators met in secret Friday, August 14, 2015, at UMSL to plan for Missouri court reform changes forced by Senate Bill 5, the legislation that takes effect Aug. 28.

Meetings held by public officials, especially when they concern issues as important as municipal court reform which has been the subject of public outcry and protest which gained national attention invites suspicion. It has already been well documented that St. Louis area municipal courts have been used to generate revenue and abuse rights. However, this is nothing new, municipal courts have operated this way for decades. Professor T.E. Lauer, a law professor at the University of Missouri published, "Prolegomenon to Municipal Court Reform in Missouri" a stinging indictment of the municipal courts in 1966. Professor Lauer stated in his argument:

"It must be recognized, however, that in bringing about this reform it may be necessary to overcome substantial resistance on the part of municipalities which will be reluctant to lose their power over offenses defined by state law. Not only would this reform diminish the importance of the municipal court, but more importantly it would cause a loss of revenue to municipalities, in that municipal fines, which are now paid into the municipal treasury, would become state fines to be paid to the school fund."

Missouri lawyers, judges and court personnel certainly knew the greater St. Louis municipal court system was an issue. I'm certain some Missouri Circuit Court, Missouri Court of Appeals and Missouri Supreme Court judges were at one-time municipal court judges or represented clients in municipal court and saw first hand the problems. The fact that constitutional rights of poor and minority defendants were routinely violated was known to most lawyers who after all are officers of the court. However, the vast majority of those court officers remained silent instead of bringing it to the public's attention. It appears that very few lawyers lodged formal complaints, and many attorneys profited from an unfair court system resulting in an increase in clients and fees. It's unfortunate that it took a protest movement and international attention before anyone took serious action.

In 2013, the municipal courts of St. Louis City and County collected $61,152,087 in fines and fees. During that same time, the combined total of court fines and fees collected by Missouri municipal courts was $132,032,351.63. This means that the municipal courts in the St. Louis region accounted for 46% of all fines and fees collected statewide, despite being home to only 22% of Missourians.

St. Louis area municipalities have most certainly become dependent upon the revenue generated by their municipal courts. The judges, prosecutors, and court administrators mostly likely, directly or indirectly, receive their pay, raises or bonuses based on the amount of revenue generate. Reduced municipal court revenue would probably result in job losses, which of course those in attendance at the closed meeting, would not want to fall victim to. St. Louis area municipalities have a vested interest to keep their courts because municipal courts can generate revenue in others ways besides traffic tickets. Municipalities have already stepped up enforcement of tall grass, housing code, and various other types of municipal ordinance violations.

Holding a closed meeting naturally makes people wonder if this was a strategy session to exchange ideas how to keep the revenue from municipal courts flowing. After August 28th, there will certainly be increasing municipal court revenue from fines other than traffic violations. Even if a municipality does not increase the number of violation citations, they could simply increase the standard fine from say $100 to $500.

Until people educate themselves and become familiar and active within our "justice" system, justice will remain a concept unavailable to many. If you have not already done so, become familiar with the ordinances of your municipality. Browse around this site to learn how you can help yourself with certain legal issues without having to pay for an attorney.

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