Missouri Supreme Court seeks public comment on municipal courts

The Supreme Court of Missouri is soliciting comments directly from members of the general public concerning their experiences in “particular” municipal courts and suggestions as to any practices or procedures that might improve those experiences.

“Recent events have raised issues about practices and procedures in the municipal courts of Missouri,” notes an April 2 post on the court’s website (www.courts.mo.gov).

Suggestions should be described in a letter, not to exceed two pages, and sent to the Clerk of the Supreme Court, P.O. Box 150, Jefferson City, MO 65102. The deadline for submission is Friday, May 1, 2015.

While some lawmakers, organizations and media outlets have recently suggested changes in  municipal court operations,  the Supreme Court survey marks one of the few times, since last year’s  civil unrest, that the public has been invited to directly submit information on the municipal courts or suggest improvements.

The state supreme court has jurisdiction over the state circuit courts, which in turn oversee the municipal courts. The court has not indicated when results of its public input survey might be released.

The Missouri Supreme Court website suggests justices may take a more targeted approach to court improvement than the blanket reforms now being advanced by state legislators and some local groups.

“Suggestions should identify the particular municipal court the person wishes to address…,” the Supreme Court notices specifies.

The Missouri legislature is considering municipal court reform legislation that would reduce the percentage of revenues that cities can raise each year through court fines and impose other new restrictions on the courts. Legislative proposals would variously reduce the revenue limit from the present 30 percent to either 20 or 10 percent.

A study by the Richmond Heights-based lobbying firm, Pelopidas, LLC, found only a handful of the county’s 90-plus municipalities currently exceed the present 30 percent limit. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch essentially confirmed those findings Sunday, publishing a survey that found only 11 municipalities above the present 30 percent limit. An investigation by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently found only three of St. Louis County’s municipal courts have not reported court revenues as required under law.

However, the Post-Dispatch indicates that many additional municipalities, which are in compliance with current law, would suffer financially under the proposed stricter standards. A total of 20 cities – nine of which are in compliance with current law – would see revenue decreases if the 20 percent limit were adopted. A total of 42 cities – 31 of which are in compliance with existing law – would take a financial hit if the 10 percent standard were adopted.

A coalition of municipalities recently filed suit contending such state-imposed limits impair a city’s ability to provide law enforcement. Law enforcement generally accounts for about a third of a municipality’s budget, making the present 30 percent limit appropriate, the coalition argues.

Some lawmakers are reportedly concerned the proposed court reforms would hurt education. While court revenue overages have traditionally been disbursed to school districts statewide, pending legislation would send the overages in St. Louis County to the county sales tax pool.

All municipalities served by 40 South News are well within current limitations on court-generated revenues. Brentwood raises 4 percent of its revenues through its court; Maplewood, 12 percent; and Richmond Heights, 7 percent, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Eighty of St. Louis County’s 82 municipal courts last week adopted a uniform schedule of fines and fees, according the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee. Courts in Brentwood and one other county community have not yet signed onto the uniform fee agreement due to ongoing administrative changes, but are expected to do so shortly. Municipal courts in the City of St. Louis – where officials, in the wake of criticism, recently dismissed offered amnesty in thousands of cases – is not a party to the St. Louis uniform fee agreement.

The court improvement committee – an offshoot of the St. Louis County Municipal League – plans to propose a uniform bond program and a county-wide compact under which those arrested by a local police department for outstanding warrants from another city could post bond in the city where the arrest took place. The committee has applied for a MacArthur Foundation Grant to implement a required inter-city data system.

A recent Post-Dispatch editorial called on the state Supreme Court to establish a “master” to oversee county municipal courts.

Comments are closed.