Breckenridge focuses on hot-button issues in State of the Judiciary

   

Employee pay, tort reform prioritized in speech

In her final State of the Judiciary speech Tuesday, Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Patricia Breckenridge took the opportunity to urge the General Assembly to increase higher state employee pay at the state of Missouri. The 3,400 employees of the Missouri court system fall under that purview, and she credited them as “hardworking, dedicated, and deserving of our respect.”

“Our state employees are the lowest paid in the nation,” she said at the beginning of her speech just after her introductions. “I know budget times are tight, but we must find a way to pay them 21st-century wages for 21st-century work.”

Breckenridge received a standing ovation from the Democratic caucus after those remarks.

More surprisingly, Breckenridge alluded to tort reform measures currently being considered by the Missouri legislature. Though she did not name proposals like the collateral source rule change or an adoption of the Daubert expert witness standards by name, she prioritized those subjects in her speech. Gov. Eric Greitens, who attended the address, and Republican leaders in the Legislature have made tort reform a priority for the legislative session alongside labor reform.

Breckenridge seemed to urge caution on that front, pointing out that of Missouri’s 1.8 million-plus court cases in the last fiscal year, most of them involved municipal ordinance violations the prosecution of state crimes. She also noted only 5 percent of all civil cases, less than 1 percent of all cases, involved tort claims.

“I understand Gov. Greitens and some of you in the General Assembly have called for changes in the law governing certain types of cases. Do not view these calls for action as a condemnation of our judicial system,” she said. “Our citizens can be proud of their courts, where they go to resolve their disputes peaceably and where our constitutional rights are protected. Day in and day out, in the courtrooms in your communities, hundreds of thousands of cases are adjudicated without fanfare.”

The chief justice then segued into how the municipal court reforms, notably in St. Louis County, had made the justice system there more fair for all people of those communities. The new mandatory standards detailing how courts must operate and the consolidation of some municipal courts greatly contributed to those improvements, she argued.

Breckenridge also pointed to advances in the juvenile court system, pretrial incarceration practices, the Supreme Court’s ongoing committee for mental health treatment courts, modernizing the court system through technology and the leadership changes.

She also acknowledged the passing of Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman, who died last November.

“He believed in the goodness of humanity and was a steadfast champion of equal justice,” Breckenridge said. “While we may not have always agreed in our legal opinions, we knew no friend more loyal or caring, and we miss him.”