JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Last week, Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt held the first hearing for his bill capping municipal revenue derived from traffic tickets and court fees. Later that day, Gov. Jay Nixon included in his broad State of the State address a push for reforms to local courts, and the following day, the state’s highest judge called on the legislature to rein in municipal courts as a fundraising mechanism for cities.
The common theme among Nixon, Schmitt, and Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell marks a rare issue that is uniting lawmakers more than it is dividing them. Missouri will almost certainly see successful legislation this year with new regulations dictating court fines and fees.
Limiting the revenue a local court collects for its city has gotten the lion’s share of the attention as the legislative session kicks off both because senate leaders have identified it as a priority and because the debate about “excessive” fines handed down by small St. Louis County municipalities has taken hold among many lawmakers as an underlying issue impacting poverty and directly related to the events of Ferguson.
“If [municipal courts] serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges – this creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality,” Russell said on Thursday in an address to a joint session of the Missouri legislature.
A day before, Nixon told lawmakers that “we need to reform municipal courts so that all citizens are treated fairly.” He went on to call for state law governing deadly force to be rewritten to comply with “constitutional requirements and U.S. Supreme Court precedent.”
Such reforms attract the most attention, but lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle are filing an a slew of bills aimed at all aspects of the justice system.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, has filed a bill calling for an audit of the administration of the death penalty. Based on other states, Keaveny says, he believes an audit will prove that Missouri is wasting valuable state dollars to execute criminals instead of placing them in lifetime sentences. Keaveny has another bill aimed at reducing the number of lengthy sentences handed out to the youngest juvenile offenders.
Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, has made various changes to Missouri’s criminal justice system his personal mission in the Senate. In this year alone, Dixon has filed bills incentivizing counties to combine prosecutor offices to save money and to create an opt-in system for county prosecutors to enter a statewide system. Dixon has bills adding more judges to circuit courts that can demonstrate the need, and wants to recalculate the cost of reimbursement to counties when jailing an accused individual.
In the House, Rep. Jim Neely has a bill expanding drug courts to every circuit court in the state, owed largely to the wild success most lawmakers attribute to the courts. Rep. Kevin Austin, who chairs the House Judiciary committee and sits on a joint committee on the same, is hoping to move the bill through his committee.
Missouri’s municipal courts are particularly erratic in St. Louis County, where the unusual city-county divide has created 90 municipalities, many of which have their own small courts. With physically small municipalities with sometimes comically tiny populations — in 2010, Champ village Missouri in St. Louis County had 13 people according to the U.S. census — and therefore no tax base, some municipalities are collecting well over the current 30 percent state limit for revenue through traffic fines that Schmitt hopes to lower to 10.
But broader issues in a state with more counties than any other in the nation — like understaffed public defenders office’s and county budgets unable to support full time prosecutors while more populous areas struggle to keep up — are the subject of bills often forgotten by the general public.