Municipal court reform transforming local legal scene

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Implementation of Show-Me Courts changing reports, personnel

Changes in the operation of municipal courts in Missouri are coming with the implementation of the Show-Me Courts.

Southwest Missouri has been chosen as the first area in the state for implementation of what is largely a technological upgrade, but other alterations in rules and procedures are already bringing major changes.

The 39th Judicial Circuit is due to switch to the system on or by May 1. The 39th Circuit has more municipal courts than any other in the state, with the exception of St. Louis County, with 22 when the implementation began. That number has since dropped as cities assess requirements of the Show-Me Court.

Municipal courts will officially become municipal divisions of the Judicial Circuit below the associate level, all under the jurisdiction of the circuit’s presiding judge, which for the 39th circuit of Barry, Lawrence and Stone counties is Jack Goodman. Training on the new system has been underway for months, required for all court clerks.

Goodman said the system will make compliance with state requirements and reporting to the state simpler and more affordable for towns. Each court will use the same the computerized system, connected directly with the Office of State Courts Administrator, working from a computer with a WiFi connection.

Rules of operation within municipal courts, which historically have varied widely between cities or judicial circuits, will now be the same throughout the state. Rulings from the municipal courts will be entered for the first time in the state’s Casenet system, accessible to the public, further enhancing transparency.

Issues over some of the requirements have caused a number of municipalities to close their courts and send all their cases to the county associate courts for resolution. While rules state that all fines paid to the county court will be returned to the municipalities, many city leaders expect court costs on the county level to absorb so much of the revenue that the municipal courts will not see enough income to pay for their judges or court clerks.

Goodman said legislation was proposed during the last Missouri General Assembly that would keep any funds collected as fines in the county court system. The bill did not pass, but with the idea circulating, he said the future disposition of returning fine money to municipalities remains uncertain.

Goodman acknowledged the municipal operations have been frustrated by their ability to collect fines. In the past, prior to reforms instituted after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County courts were found by a 2015 U.S. Justice Department investigation to be jailing subjects for failure to pay fines or failure to appear in court, then adding more fines in an unending cycle, with a widely varying fine schedule.

“Safeguards were put in place so courts cannot be used as an oppressive revenue generator,” Goodman said.

New Missouri Supreme Court rules state courts cannot jail subjects for failure to pay fines. Goodman acknowledged that creates some challenges for the courts and cities.

“If a subject doesn’t pay, a judge must go through an inquiry to determine indigence,” Goodman said. “That affects the city’s ability to collect. There are steps you must to go through before a judge can order a warrant for non-appearance or non-payment. The court mails a summons to the defendant. If the city gets a warrant and the judge orders the person arrested, there’s a cost to house that person in jail. The city has to decide is it worth putting those teeth on this debt?”

During a meeting with court clerks in January, Goodman explained rules also require a greater division of duties than the past. Municipal clerks may no longer be able to serve as court clerks.

Missouri Supreme Court rules say, “Clerks of court and other nonjudicial personnel do not perform any functions that constitute an actual or apparent conflict of interest with the impartial performance of their judicial duties. Work performed on behalf of law enforcement or the prosecuting attorney is one example of an actual or apparent conflict of interest.

“Clerks of court and other nonjudicial personnel, when performing court-related functions, work solely under the direction and supervision of the municipal judge, the circuit clerk, or another officer of the judicial branch as to the work to be performed and the manner in which it is to be done.”

“I understand there’s frustration over the division of responsibilities,” Goodman said. “It’s a challenge. You can’t have a court clerk in a position of political influence. It’s not unheard of for a clerk to get a file from an officer and prepare that for the prosecuting attorney and the judge. The municipal court clerk cannot work for the police, the prosecutor and the judge. That does not mean the municipal court clerk can’t do any city work.”

A major obstacle in the new rules requires having a municipal court clerk available to the public 30 hours a week, 15 hours a week accessible live for personal contact either by phone or online. Cities with smaller courts are acknowledging an inability to hire another person for that job, if the city clerk cannot do it, especially if the court does not generate enough funds to cover costs for the judge and prosecutor as well as the clerk.

“We all have new expectations in which to operate,” Goodman said. “I will do my best to facilitate the changes. By and large, I’m proud of the clerks and city judges. They’ve done well without a lot of resources. Now, we have people here for training. Show-Me Courts has a help desk people can call. Once all the courts are on board, they all will have access. I hope they will be able to weather through this. I understand the ongoing cost benefit analysis. Some municipal courts have two cases a month. Others have many more. I will do what I can to help.”

Goodman confirmed that cities have the option to consolidate their municipal court with a larger nearby court that has a court clerk available for the required time. He noted every county has a larger court where consolidation is possible. Consolidations are taking place in other parts of the state.

Monett, considered the flagship municipal court in the 39th Judicial Circuit, has received no consolidation requests. City councils in Purdy and Pierce City acted on the recommendation of their city attorney, Darlene Parrigon, and voted to send their courts to the county without learning about the consolidation option.

Cities would still have to pay for their prosecutor and share the cost of the judge and clerk at a negotiated rate. In courts merged with the county, the county would absorb the cost of the judge.

“I’m not eager to add to the county court load,” Goodman said. “I’m concerned about that trend. It’s not something I’m trying to make happen.”

Goodman has been closely involved in the Show-Me Courts implementation.

“I’m on the Missouri court automation committee, responsible for rolling out the Show-Me Court system,” Goodman said. “I’m not a tech wonk. When the reform came, there was a real shift in the expected schedules of deployment. The push was to develop and implement it at the municipal court level, where the operation was entirely different from the county level. You have attorneys in private practice serving as prosecutors. Most of the judges are attorneys in private practice, not full-time judges, and they serve in various divisions.”

In addition, Goodman noted municipal courts often produce large quantities of paperwork, all different, filed differently, posing a major transition for unification. The electronic system will also simplify communication by introducing a portal through which defendants or persons receiving a ticket can communicate with the prosecutor, facilitating reaching an agreement prior to the court date.

Goodman noted the state has made a substantial investment to upgrade and standardize court operations statewide.

“[The effort and investment] makes no sense if the goal was to wipe out the municipals,” he continued. “I’m pleased to see resources being made available. I believe the process to be as user friendly as any transition can be. The people who local courts are working with are very helpful. They’re trying to make this work.”

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