After a Department of Justice investigative report revealed the Ferguson police chief working directly with the city manager and municipal courts to raise revenue for the city through issuing tickets, all of these officials have resigned, one by one, and the Missouri Supreme Court has stripped the city of administration of its municipal court.
Ronald Brockmeyer, the municipal judge in Ferguson, John Shaw, its city manager, and Police Chief Thomas Jackson now have all resigned in the aftermath of the report, issued on March 4.
“A fish rots from the head down,” said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who was active in Ferguson protests. “The DOJ report revealed that the instructions came from the top. Make up the rules. Make sure your friends are exempt. Arrest and fine all the black people.”
She suggested that Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III should be next to go. “Your move, mayor," Chappelle-Nadal said in a statement.
Ferguson municipal court cases were transferred to Judge Roy L. Richter of the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri. Richter, who will begin hearing cases on March 16, will also have wide latitude to reform Ferguson's court procedures.
"Judge Richter will bring a fresh, disinterested perspective to this court's practices, and he is able and willing to implement needed reforms," Chief Judge Mary Russell said in a statement.
The court also is assigning staff from its state courts administrator’s office to review Ferguson municipal court practices and to assist Richter in making necessary changes.
“Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis,” Russell said.
Brendan Roediger of the Saint Louis University law clinic encouraged the court to make systemic reforms.
"It's the supervisory authority that we've been asking the Supreme Court to utilize all along," Roediger said. "I certainly don't believe that Brockmeyer is the worst municipal court judge. I hope the Supreme Court uses this power to look at other courts and to take similar measures with other courts."
Brockmeyer also is out as prosecutor of Dellwood, and on indefinite leave as city prosecutor in Florissant. He remains city prosecutor in Vinita Park, and his status as municipal judge in Breckenridge Hills is under review.
Richter, the appeals judge who will hear cases from Ferguson, chairs the Municipal Judge Education Committee and supports the work being pushed by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee. In a January 14 letter to the volunteer group, he wrote, "I am a firm believer that those within the system are in a better position to propose and enact positive improvements than to have 'improvements' come from the outside."
The group, comprised mostly of court personnel, has drafted a series of voluntary reforms, including making volunteer lawyers available for defendants and encouraging the use of community service instead of fines when defendants can't pay. It also wants to draft uniform procedures for payments plans, which are required in some circumstances by a new Supreme Court rule that takes effect in July.
Advocates for municipal court defendants, such as Roediger and Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders, say the reforms proposed by the court improvement committee don't go far enough. The two attorneys were in Jefferson City on Monday, March 9 asking that all municipal court cases be transferred to state courts, where professional judges are more familiar with court procedures.
"There's also a judge available at all times, so people won't be sitting for days at a time without having the ability to have bail reviewed," Roediger said.
Roediger and Harvey are representing plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits against municipal courts, mostly in North County. Attorney General Chris Koster has also sued cities that violate the state law limiting how much revenue they can take in from court fines and fees. State auditor Tom Schweich announced a review of several municipal courts, including Ferguson, in October – it's not clear how his death will affect those audits.
Legislative efforts are also under way to reduce the limit on court fines and fees from 30 percent of a city's budget to as low as 10 percent. In September, Ferguson passed its own ordinance limiting municipal court revenue to 15 percent of its general fund budget. The city appears to be slightly above that self-imposed limit for fiscal year 2015.
Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones also announced that Dellwood's municipal court will be granting "full amnesty" for all traffic tickets issued before April 11, 2012 – the last day that the tiny city had its own police department. The amnesty program will be effective March 20.
Rachel Lippmann of St. Louis Public Radio (news.stlpublicradio.org) contributed to this report.