The new municipal judge in Ferguson, Mo. has announced sweeping changes in court procedures, in the wake of a highly critical Justice Department report (see Gavel Grab) and with the intention of restoring public confidence in the system.
Judge Donald McCullin ordered withdrawal of all arrest warrants issued since Dec. 31, 2014, and new court dates and payment options for defendants. For indigent people, the new plan includes community service or commutation of fines. Pending final outcome of a case, he will restore drivers’ licenses for people who lost them over failure to appear in court or to pay a fine.
“These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start,” McCullin said, according to the Associated Press. “Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive. Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pretrial release because of the inability to make bond.”
Is a historic judicial appointment near in Greene County, Mo.? According to the Springfield News-Leader, of eight applicants for a circuit judgeship there, six are women. Never before has a woman sat on the circuit bench in Greene County.
Under a merit selection system that took effect in 2008, the 31st Judicial Circuit Commission is interviewing candidates for the position in open proceedings, and will recommend three finalists to the governor, who will in turn appoint one of them. Before 2008, judges were chosen by election.
“I would hope that the commissioners there have an awareness that justice is most credible when it is more reflective of the community at large who will appear in front of a judge seeking fairness and judicial wisdom,” said Vivian Eveloff, founder and director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
In a lengthy editorial about the need for reform of the municipal court system in Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praises the state’s merit selection system for choosing top judges.
The editorial notes prominently that former Missouri chief justice Edward D. “Chip” Robertson Jr. is a member of a working group assigned to study the municipal court system and recommend any needed fixes. It salutes Judge Robertson as one who fought valiantly to defend the “Missouri Plan,” as the merit system is called, from attacks:
“In states where judges run in partisan elections (and in circuit courts in outstate Missouri), their campaigns are funded by the very lawyers and corporations who have interests before them. A state Supreme Court race, as in Illinois, can cost millions. In fighting for the merit plan, Judge Robertson protected the integrity of the Missouri court.”
In the latest fallout of a U.S. Justice Department report critical of the police and court systems in Ferguson, Mo. (see Gavel Grab), the state Supreme Court named a Missouri appeals court judge to oversee all municipal court cases in Ferguson.
The assignment was made public as Ronald J. Brockmeyer, the municipal judge who was criticized in the Justice Department report for abuses, resigned his post.
According to the New York Times, the Justice Department report said, “The Municipal Court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.” Read more
“Ferguson, a city of 21,000, is unusual in some respects — it has issued the most warrants of any city in the state relative to its size, for example — but the unfairness in its court system that the Justice Department highlighted is not limited to it, to St. Louis County or even to Missouri.”
Offenses include using “police and courts as money making ventures,” racial bias in policing, and exchanges of racist emails, according to the New York Times. The report found that 85 percent of traffic stops and 93 percent of arrests over a two year period targeted the city’s black population. “A black motorist in Ferguson was twice as likely to be searched.. even though searches of whites turned up drugs and other contraband more often,” the article explains.
Citing Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation to a Washington, D.C. group that tried to defeat a local Missouri judge, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial asks Sinquefield for more transparency and less deceit.
In an editorial styled as a letter to Sinquefield, the editorial board asks, “Could you please instruct your vast army of political operatives to stop being deceitful about how they spend your money?” It acknowledges that on some issues it agrees philosophically with the activist donor, but “When you — or the people who work for you — secretly funnel money into Washington, D.C., political action committees to hide the source of the funds, it looks really sneaky and underhanded.”
The letter refers to money Sinquefield gave to the Republican State Leadership Committee and its spending that amount and more to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, who ultimately won reelection in November (see Gavel Grab). It says “your spokespeople wouldn’t fess up. Neither would the RSLC.” Read more
When a national organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), pumped a six-figure sum in a lower-court election to defeat an incumbent judge, it captured national news media attention (see Gavel Grab). Now a local newspaper is following the money trail.
According to the Jefferson City (Mo.) News Tribune, “Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield gave $300,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee in October, an RSLC filing with the federal Internal Revenue Service shows.” The RSLC gave more than $304,000 to its Missouri political action committee, which spent $10,000 in support of a local legislative candidate and “most of the rest” in support of Brian Stumpe, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, a Democrat.
The News Tribune reports, “Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation would appear to be a direct contribution to the RSLC, for its expenses in Missouri. But his donation was just under 55 percent of the total $548,349 the RSLC received from Missourians during the Oct. 1-Nov. 24 reporting period.” Read more
When voters in Cole County, Mo. reelected an incumbent circuit court judge this month, many of them recognized a “dark money campaign was neither fair nor factual” on behalf of the challenger, a Jefferson City News Tribune editorial said.
Jefferson City is Missouri’s capital, and it is located in Cole County. The editorial was commenting on the race between challenger Brian Stumpe, supported with six-figure spending by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), and incumbent Judge Pat Joyce. The RSLC is a national group based in Washington, D.C.
“We commend Cole County voters for rejecting a climate of fear and for vanquishing it with their votes. They have sent a message that walkers bringing dark money are not welcome here,” the editorial said. The editorial relied on Wikipedia for a Read more
In several states that have recently held judicial elections or that will hold them next year, there is talk of changing the way judges are selected:
- After controversy in Kansas over a state Supreme Court ruling that set aside death penalties for two brothers, state legislators may be ready to give the governor more control over appointments of high court justices, Kansas.com reported. Two justices who voted to vacate the death penalties faced an ouster drive but won retention on Election Day.
- Some people are talking about the possibility of Cole County, Missouri switching from judicial elections for lower court judges to a merit-selection system after a national political organization pumped a six-figure sum into this month’s election, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported.
- “Voters will have chance to remake Pa. high court” next year, the Associated Press reported. “Misconduct in PA’s highest court leads to calls for reform,” stated a headline for JudgesonMerit.org, sponsored by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner organization.