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A Wholesale Failure of Missouri’s Judges

The Justice Department report highlights one of the darkest moments in the history of Missouri’s judiciary and the judges of the state have both an ethical and a moral obligation to lead the charge back into the light.

March 6, 2015

There are count­less fail­ures of govern­ment chron­icled in the Justice Depart­ment’s report on the pervas­ive racial bias that has under­mined Ferguson, Missouri for all these years. But of all the heart­break­ing details, of all the strik­ing examples of govern­ment offi­cials prey­ing upon the governed, the most disheart­en­ing to me is the deplor­able conduct of the judi­ciary, both in Ferguson and around the rest of the state. Every judge in Missouri, the ones who actively deprived resid­ents of their consti­tu­tional rights and the ones who pass­ively allowed it to occur, is compli­cit in a conspir­acy of injustice that cannot be coun­ten­anced in a nation that purports to oper­ate under a rule of law.

The muni­cipal judges in Ferguson, who surely took oaths of office to uphold the Consti­tu­tion but who acted instead like bark­ers and bill collect­ors, are of course the most compli­cit. Take Ronald Brock­meyer, for example, whose work was cited by federal offi­cials. Appoin­ted as a muni­cipal judge in 2003 he became (and evid­ently still is) a revenue-produ­cing machine for Ferguson. He also serves else­where as a prosec­utor, a conflict of interest so basic and obvi­ous that it helps mostly to illus­trate how utterly broken Missour­i’s justice system is. Here is how the Justice Depart­ment char­ac­ter­ized Brock­mey­er’s role:

The Finance Direct­or’s Febru­ary 2011 report to the City Coun­cil notes that “Judge Brock­meyer was first appoin­ted in 2003, and during this time has been success­ful in signi­fic­antly increas­ing court collec­tions over the years.” The report includes a list of “what he has done to help in the areas of court effi­ciency and revenue.” The list, draf­ted by Judge Brock­meyer, approv­ingly high­lights the creation of addi­tional fees, many of which are widely considered abus­ive and may be unlaw­ful, includ­ing several that the City has repealed during the pendency of our invest­ig­a­tion.

These include a $50 fee charged each time a person has a pending muni­cipal arrest warrant cleared, and a “fail­ure to appear fine,” which the Judge noted is “increased each time the Defend­ant fails to appear in court or pay a fine.” The Judge also noted increas­ing fines for repeat offend­ers, “espe­cially in regard to hous­ing viol­a­tions, [which] have increased substan­tially and will continue to be increased upon subsequent viol­a­tions.

City offi­cials in Ferguson were warned that this was not appro­pri­ate. Here, accord­ing to the federal report, is how they reacted:

In 2012, a Ferguson City Coun­cil­mem­ber wrote to other City offi­cials in oppos­i­tion to Judge Brock­mey­er’s reappoint­ment, stat­ing that “[the Judge] does not listen to the testi­mony, does not review the reports or the crim­inal history of defend­ants, and does­n’t let all the pertin­ent witnesses testify before render­ing a verdict.”

The Coun­cil­mem­ber then addressed the concern that “switch­ing judges would/could lead to loss of revenue,” arguing that even if such a switch did “lead to a slight loss, I think it’s more import­ant that cases are being handled prop­erly and fairly.”

The City Manager acknow­ledged mixed reviews of the Judge’s work but urged that the Judge be reappoin­ted, noting that “[i]t goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any effi­ciency in our Courts, nor exper­i­ence any decrease in our Fines and Forfeit­ures.

A judge who “does not listen to testi­mony, does not review the reports or the crim­inal history of the defend­ants, and does­n’t let all the pertin­ent witnesses testify” is no judge at all and the law he dispenses based upon prac­tices surely is no better than the law of the jungle. Let me reph­rase that: a judge who routinely acts this way, a judge who pushes for ways to increase the revenue coming into his court, is a judge who seems to be in viol­a­tion of count­less codes and canons of judi­cial ethics. So, too, are other judges who are aware of such imper­miss­ible conduct, such obstruc­tion of justice if you will, and who do noth­ing to stop it. The resid­ents of Ferguson who were preyed upon by their courts were preyed upon, too, by this conspir­acy of silence.

That was before Michael Brown was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last August and this silence and lack of reform from public offi­cials, includ­ing judges, explains why Attor­ney General Eric Holder was so specific Wednes­day when he spoke about the powder keg that Ferguson repres­en­ted last summer. And after the protests and the inter­na­tional atten­tion paid to the prob­lems? To my know­ledge, the only prac­tical response from the state’s judi­ciary was the imple­ment­a­tion by the state supreme court of a rather tepid new rule, last Decem­ber, that places limits on the amount of fees and fines muni­cipal judges may impose upon indi­gent or nearly indi­gent Missouri resid­ents.

Even in the wake of the federal report, the St. Louis Dispatch chron­icled Friday, the very offi­cials who ought to be apolo­giz­ing now that their conduct has come to light seem agnostic or even defi­ant. Some claimed they had not even read the report that will shape the rest of their profes­sional lives. Brock­meyer, the Post-Dispatch repor­ted, did not show up in court for his job as a prosec­utor and did not respond to emailed ques­tions from journ­al­ists. Other offi­cials claimed the report was “over­blown.”

This is not remotely good enough. One would think that Brock­meyer would be among those offi­cials the Post Dispatch wants fired imme­di­ately for their roles in this long-running scan­dal. Every other muni­cipal judge who acted in this fash­ion also should be forced to go. So should every other judge who knew about the money-making scheme, the perver­sion of justice for economic means, but who failed to stop or expose it. The state’s judi­ciary should under­take its own invest­ig­a­tion to look into all that went wrong here and to offer up recom­mend­a­tions for how to fix it. On Thursday, a spokes­wo­man for the Missouri Supreme Court, which has juris­dic­tion over these muni­cipal courts, said the justices were review­ing the federal report. One would hope so.

Some of the solu­tions are as obvi­ous as they will be diffi­cult to imple­ment. The New York Times Friday ran a piece head­lined: “Some in Ferguson Who Are Part of Prob­lem Are Asked to Help Solve It, which essen­tially sums up how complic­ated the polit­ical and bureau­cratic process of reform will be. But from an ethical and moral and legal view it’s not terribly complic­ated at all. 1) Judges should not also be prosec­utors and vice versa. 2) The dispens­a­tion of justice must be wholly divorced from any economic incent­ives. 3) Muni­cipal judges in partic­u­lar should be subject to intense over­sight and appel­late review. 4) Account­ab­il­ity, real account­ab­il­ity, must come to this justice system.

These reforms, and the others neces­sary to put to right all that is wrong in Missouri, will be expens­ive. They will mean upset­ting entrenched and pervas­ive interests and forcing people to reckon with whatever inner demons cause them to imple­ment such racially bias policies and prac­tices in the first place. But the cost of doing noth­ing, or of doing little, is too much to bear. The Justice Depart­ment report high­lights one of the darkest moments in the history of Missour­i’s judi­ciary and the judges of the state have both an ethical and a moral oblig­a­tion to lead the charge back into the light.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Think­stock)