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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additional fees, many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful, including several that the City has repealed during the pendency of our investigation.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)