By Jeremy Kohler
The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling striking down a law that imposed special requirements for municipalities in St. Louis County after the unrest following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
One section required municipalities in St. Louis County to adhere to a set of minimum standards, including a requirement that police departments earn accreditation. Another capped the revenue that a city could keep from traffic fines at 12.5 percent of its general operating revenue, instead of the 20 percent cap the law imposed statewide. The previous cap was 30 percent statewide.
Twelve cities and two mayors in St. Louis County challenged those sections because they were aimed specifically at St. Louis County, calling them "special laws" that are generally barred by the state constitution.
The high court ruled that special laws can survive a court challenge if the state demonstrates "substantial justification" for special treatment. But the state attorney general's office didn't try, the judges wrote.
Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who sponsored the bill when he served in the state Senate, said in an email that he was disappointed the special requirements for municipalities in St. Louis County were not defended "despite strong statistical evidence in support of a lower cap." But he said the 20 percent cap, reduced from 30 percent, was a "significant victory for efforts to eliminate these abusive taxation by citation schemes that hit the poor especially hard."
Sam Alton, a lawyer for the plaintiff cities, said he was pleased that the Supreme Court "followed the law. The way it was originally written, (the law) was a terrible overreach and unfairly applied. All we wanted was fair implementation of the law."
It was not immediately clear why lawyers for the state backed away from the law's requirements for St. Louis County. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley said the issue was handled by his predecessor, Chris Koster.
Koster, now working for the health care company Centene Corp., said he would need to review files to answer the question. He referred questions to the lawyer in his office who argued the case, J. Andrew Hirth, of Columbia, who could not be reached.
The special requirements were the centerpiece of a court-reform bill known as Senate Bill 5, enacted in 2015 in response to the unrest following the shooting of Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. A blistering report by the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2015 called the Ferguson municipal court an abusive fundraising tool, and a series of investigative Post-Dispatch stories exposed how Ferguson and other cities relied heavily on court fines and fees to raise revenue for city services.
Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon E. Beetem agreed with the plaintiffs last year in a ruling that the special requirements were barred by the constitution. He also agreed that a statewide requirement on municipalities to submit annual financial statements to the state auditor was an unfunded mandate that violated the state's Hancock Amendment.
The Supreme Court upheld the bulk of Beetem's ruling in a 5-1 vote with two judges not participating. But the judges threw out the part of Beetem's ruling blocking the financial reporting to the auditor.
Auditor Nicole Galloway said in an email she was pleased the court affirmed her ability to hold local governments accountable. "Too often my audits identified blatant disregard for financial reporting requirements, and outright refusal to remit excess revenue owed to the state," she wrote, vowing to continue ensuring cities are not using courts "as the main source of revenue to prop up an otherwise unsustainable government."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in November 2015, are Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel-Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston, and Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter.
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