Pine Lawn courts

A protester was refused entry at Pine Lawn Municipal Court during a demonstration on March 5.

Missouri Supreme Court has narrowed down the focus it's asking of its Municipal Court Work Group. The simplified directions to the work group cut to the heart of criticisms of St. Louis County municipal courts by ArchCity Defenders, SLU Law legal clinics and the Department of Justice.

In a letter signed by Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge on September 22, the high court asks for "analysis" on a briefer list of issues than initially commissioned. The narrowed focus is on conflicts of interest by individual officials serving roles in multiple courts, possible consolidation of municipal courts, incarceration issues and remedies for enforcing nonpayment.

This response to the work group's interim report - which asked for more clarity and better direction from the court - is promising. It suggests the high court wants to focus on the elements of municipal court practice that have been blasted as unconstitutional by legal advocates.

Legal advocates have shown abundant evidence that St. Louis County municipal courts are used as debtor's prisons and staffed by many individuals with multiple and conflicting power roles in more than one court.

The focus on possible consolidation of municipal courts also appears to respond to scathing reports on municipal court fragmentation by Better Together St. Louis -- and, again, ArchCity Defenders, whose white papers on the municipal courts have led calls for reform since before the Ferguson unrest called attention to abusive practices by the local courts.

The high court also extended the work group's deadline to March 1 of next year and gave the group the option of asking for additional staff help, also signs of the court making a serious commitment to the problem.

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