Missouri Supreme Court Takes Over Ferguson Cases

The Missouri Supreme Court announced Monday that it will take the "extraordinary action" of reassigning all Ferguson municipal court cases to the circuit court, starting next week.
by | March 10, 2015 AT 10:40 AM

By Jennifer Mann

The Missouri Supreme Court announced Monday that it will take the "extraordinary action" of reassigning all Ferguson municipal court cases to the circuit court, starting next week.

In a news release, the court announced the move was intended "to help restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division."

Ferguson municipal Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer resigned his position Monday afternoon. In a phone interview, Brockmeyer also said he would likely resign from Dellwood, where he is prosecutor, but he would not elaborate. He declined to say what would happen with his other municipal court positions as prosecutor in Vinita Park and Florissant, and judge in Breckenridge Hills.

The actions Monday followed the release last week of a scathing Department of Justice report on Ferguson's police and court practices.

"I don't believe the report was correct," Brockmeyer told the Post-Dispatch Monday night, "but it's not worth fighting."

A group of residents waiting outside a closed meeting of the Ferguson City Council on Monday night cheered the news.

"That's big," said Melissa Sanders, 32, of Ferguson. "I'm elated -- for now."

Sanders, of the activist group Lost Voices, said she was concerned that "they may be just pacifying us."

Asked after the council meeting whether City Administrator John Shaw and Police Chief Thomas Jackson might be ousted, Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said: "Given the gravity of the DOJ report, it's safe to say everything is on the table."

Brockmeyer said the main reason he resigned is that he and his family had received death threats in the last several days.

"That's one of the most important reasons -- it's not worth jeopardizing my family," he said.

Among the issues mentioned in the report, Brockmeyer said, was a red-light camera ticket against him in Hazelwood that was dismissed by the Ferguson prosecutor, who also was prosecutor in Hazelwood. Brockmeyer said Monday the ticket was dismissed after he pointed out to the prosecutor that it would be difficult to show who was driving the vehicle, which was used by his law firm.

In a news release, Bert Fulk, a law associate of Brockmeyer, said Brockmeyer "recognizes that deference to a municipal judge's judgments and court rulings depends upon public confidence" and media reports, "regardless of their accuracy or validity have diminished the public's confidence in the Ferguson municipal court."

Fulk said Brockmeyer's resignation was intended to help restore public confidence and to "help Ferguson begin its healing process."

Brockmeyer was criticized in the DOJ report for acting as a revenue-generator for the court and the city, helping to bring in millions through "creative" use of fines and fees, while dismissing tickets for himself and friends. The report also rapped him for instilling fear in traffic defendants, even jailing one man for 10 days because the man refused to answer questions in court.

The DOJ report also revealed racist emails that were sent by court and police officials, and portrayed a police department and court that discriminated against African-Americans at all levels -- from the initial traffic stop to how they were treated in court. Last week, Court Clerk Mary Twitty was fired and Police Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd resigned over the emails.

The statement from Brockmeyer's law associate distanced the judge from police and court abuses detailed in the report. It noted that Brockmeyer's part-time position only required him to be in court once a week, compared to the court clerk, whose role was cited in the DOJ report as "the most significant role."

Judge Roy L. Richter of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, will take over the Ferguson court's caseload. The transfer of cases will continue "until further order" of the Supreme Court, according to the court's press release.

The order, allowed under the state constitution, authorizes Richter to implement reforms to Ferguson's court policies and procedures.

Chief Justice Mary R. Russell said in the release that Richter would bring "a fresh, disinterested perspective to this court's practices and he is able and willing to implement needed reforms."

Russell, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed.

Richter said in an email that "Lawyers in general, and judges in particular, want the judicial system to operate fairly for all those who deal with the Courts. If that hasn't been the case in Ferguson or anywhere else in Missouri, that needs to change -- and that's important."

The judge said he and the state court administrator's office will visit Ferguson soon to assess the situation. He said he's interested in the idea of having a wider scope of "standard" fines that would be used in Ferguson and elsewhere, and also in making the court more accessible to the public.

"If something is a routine violation and the offender wants to pay the fine without appearing in court, that makes sense to me," he said.

Richter serves as chairman of the municipal judge education committee, a body of the Supreme Court that trains municipal court judges. In January, he wrote a letter to municipal court officials encouraging them to consider a range of internal reforms being proposed by the Municipal Court Improvement Committee, a voluntary group made up of judges and lawyers. It is led by Overland municipal court Judge Frank Vatterott.

In the letter, Richter said he believed the media was misrepresenting the municipal court system and that "the vast majority of municipal courts operate the way they should" with "a few (very few) exceptions."

"No system is so 'good' that it can't be improved, and 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 -- from folks who do not understand the practicalities (of) making new rules about matters with which they are unfamiliar," he wrote.

Richter, on Monday, acknowledged in an email that "one court operating improperly is one too many" but said he's been educating municipal court judges since the early '80s, and he does believe that most do it right.

"Take a road trip down to Cape Girardeau -- just go sit in their municipal court for a session -- let me know what you think. If you don't want to go that far, scoot down to Perryville. My point is, the entire State isn't St. Louis County," he said.

Richter added he shouldn't be viewed as an outsider coming in. "Being a judge is being a judge -- you listen to both sides and do the right thing, applying the facts to the law."

Vatterott, who asked Richter to write the letter, said Monday that the wording was intended to ensure buy-in from the courts. He called Richter "a highly respected ... straight-shooter" who "doesn't have an agenda and calls it like he sees it." Vatterott said that Richter would be an influential outside voice.

Russell, in her statement, said more than two-thirds of all the state's court cases are filed in municipal divisions, which often provide the first or only impression citizens have of the court system.

"Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the Court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis," Russell said.

In December, the court clarified the language of the rules to make it clear that people who demonstrate an inability to pay a fine must be given more time -- not be thrown in jail or forced to pay all at once.

Brockmeyer, who was paid about $20,000 for serving as Ferguson judge, has federal tax liens of about $170,000 filed against property he and his wife own in St. Charles County. Brockmeyer said nobody has mentioned that he's been paying $5,000 a month to the IRS.

"The taxes aren't being ignored. I'm making my payments, and they're on time," he said.

He said while some have used that situation to paint him a hypocrite, some of the traffic offenders in court were given a third, fourth and fifth chances to pay up or do a work program in lieu of paying and still couldn't make good on their tickets.

Margaret Gillerman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

(c)2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch