JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri’s highest judge used much of her opportunity to speak to the legislature to highlight the problems inherent in the municipal court system.
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge delivered her first State of the Judiciary speech to members of the General Assembly in the House chamber Wednesday. In the speech, she highlighted various changes that have occurred since last year to combat abuses and oversights done by the state’s municipal court system.
“After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and the resulting Department of Justice report, the municipal divisions in St. Louis County were thrust into the national spotlight,” she said.
Breckenridge explained how the problem had gotten out of hand of state power. In 1979, with the restructuring of the Missouri judicial system, municipal divisions became divisions of the circuit court, but they failed to become part of the state system.
“The law left the selection of judges and staff to the municipalities, which may have caused some court personnel to promote the interests of their municipality over the interests of justice,” she noted.
The justice continued by crediting the legislature for attempting to confront the problem head on with last year’s SB 5, though she did not mention it by name. Breckenridge also noted that the justice system had made changes of their own, including a crackdown on exorbitant fines and court costs, recalling thousands of warrants, and a requirement for municipal judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay fines.
She also noted that their work was not over, and noted that the Supreme Court had appointed a municipal work group that is currently researching the problem and should provide recommendations for remediation on March 1.
Breckenridge also hit on a Department of Justice report released last July, which found the St. Louis County Family Court did not give due process to to children in delinquency hearings and that the court’s juvenile division was discriminating against black children. She and the other justices established the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in October to look into the charges.
“Let me be clear, we are committed to ensuring every individual in every case in our system of justice is treated with respect and every case is adjudicated fairly and impartially under the law,” she said. “Even a perception that justice is contingent on the color of one’s skin or the part of the state one comes from should concern us all, no matter who we are or where we live.”
Breckenridge also focused on Missouri’s national leadership in technological progress in the court system, especially automated case management, and the ability of the judicial branch to cooperate with the legislature.
“I am pleased to announce that, once again, we are collaborating,” she said. “Together, we can change more lives in Missouri.”