Following the death of Michael Brown last August, one of the key issues to emerge was a critical examination of the municipal court system in the individual communities that make up St. Louis County. Many of the courts were accused of not working primarily for justice, but as a way to raise funds for municipalities.
Reforming Missouri’s municipal courts has been one of five focus areas of the governor’s Ferguson Commission, a group appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.
The Missouri Supreme Court has created the Supreme Court Municipal Division Work Group to study municipal court problems. Kimberly Norwood, JD, professor of law and of African and African-American Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is a member of that group.
“We are charged with not only looking into reforms that the Missouri Supreme Court can enact, but also looking into additional actions that either the legislature or other entities can implement,” Norwood said.
The group is reviewing documents and reports from the Ferguson Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and others. Members also are evaluating current law and legislation affecting courts around the state. The group will hold at least three public hearings over the next few months before issuing an interim report sometime late this fall.
“I am happy to be a part of the working group and I am very optimistic about real, lasting change in our municipal court system,” Norwood said. “If it is ever going to happen, now is the time.”
Mae Quinn, JD, agrees that the time for change is now. Quinn is professor of law and director of the Juvenile Law & Justice Clinic at the School of Law. This summer, she served as an invited juvenile justice expert before the Ferguson Commission.
“I think we have taken some major first steps toward
reforming our courts,” Quinn said. “Just acknowledging that we have a
problem is big, but we have also just started to chip away at some of
the key issues.”
Quinn is a nationally recognized scholar in the areas of criminal and juvenile justice. Her most recent essay, “In Loco Juvenile Justice: Minors in Munis, Cash from Kids, and Adolescent Pro Se Advocacy – Ferguson and Beyond,” focuses on the overlap between municipal and juvenile court practices in Missouri.
Her previous work, “The Other Missouri Model: Systemic Juvenile Injustice in the Show Me State,” published in the Missouri Law Review, lays out some of the same constitutional and other concerns the Justice Department discovered during its recent investigation of the Family Court of St. Louis County.
Among the issues that must be addressed, Quinn suggested, is the link between the municipal and juvenile courts.
“Municipal court problems are a juvenile justice issue too,” she said. “In order for us to achieve meaningful change, we have to think of the two systems together in the days ahead. In Missouri, we allow charges against 17-year-olds to be filed automatically in adult courts. We are one of only 10 states that do that. But all minors under age 18 should go to juvenile court. Then we don’t have kids going through several courts, but can keep them in a single court system that is built to handle the needs of children.
“And while our juvenile court system is also very broken and surely needs reform, it would be best to focus on court reform for kids under one roof,” Quinn said.
Karen Tokarz, JD, the Charles Nagel Professor of Public Interest Law and Public Service and director of the Civil Rights & Community Justice Clinic at the School of Law, is a member of the Ferguson Commission working group charged with examining municipal courts and governance, one of five working groups of the commission.
The Ferguson Commission recently approved the working group’s 33 proposed calls to action around municipal court reform. The overall Ferguson Commission report, documenting all the areas of investigation, will be made public by the end of September.
“The municipal courts are Missourian’s first and sometimes only impression of our legal system,” said Tokarz, also professor of African and African-American Studies in Arts & Sciences.
“More and more often it is a bad impression,” she said. “All of us in this region need to be concerned when an overly disproportionate number of poor people and people of color are getting lost in our court system. And we must be concerned when the public begins to lose confidence in judges and courts, and in the government itself.
“Changes in our municipal court system are crucial in restoring public trust in government and ensuring that the legal system is perceived as independent, transparent and fair,” Tokarz said. “The Missouri legislature took some important steps this past session, but there is more work to be done, especially in the areas of conflicts of interest, consolidation of the courts and juvenile justice.”