HOUSE SPEAKER NOW BACKS MUNICIPAL COURT REFORM
Somewhat backing off on his earlier position that House Republicans won’t have a “Ferguson agenda” this year, House Speaker John Diehl on April 1 said municipal court reform will be a priority during the final weeks of the 2015 legislative session. Diehl said the reforms will be added to legislation that already has cleared the Senate that would further limit how much revenue cities can derive from traffic tickets.
A recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s police department and municipal court documented a number of abuses, including that the city’s law enforcement system primarily is used not to promote public safety and ensure justice but to generate revenue for the city. The report said that such practices aren’t unique to Ferguson and are commonplace throughout the St. Louis region.
In a series of investigative articles, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has documented how many attorneys profit from the area’s fractured municipal court system by simultaneously serving as municipal judges, city prosecutors and defense attorneys in neighboring jurisdictions. This system of attorneys serving in multiple roles creates inherent conflicts of interest and encourages the trading of favors to get special treatment for clients, according to the paper.
Among the reforms Diehl called for include holding municipal judges to the same standards as state judges, who are prohibited from practicing law while serving on the bench. He also suggests requiring municipal judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay when levying fines and offer alternative sentences, such as community service, when appropriate.
Another key proposal relates to failure to appear in court charges. Because it is common knowledge in St. Louis County that some municipal judges illegally jail defendants for inability to pay their fines, poor defendants often skip court dates to avoid imprisonment. This leads to failure to appeal charges and additional fines and fees that poor defendants can’t afford to pay. Diehl says failure to appear charges should be prohibited in municipal courts, while still allowing those who skip court dates to be arrested to answer for their original charge.
HOUSE COMMITTEE ENDORSES MEDICAL MARIJUANA BILL
The House Select Committee on General Laws on March 31 unanimously approved legislation that would legalize marijuana use for medical use on a limited basis. HB 800 sponsored by state Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, now advances to the full House of Representatives.
Under the bill, doctors could prescribe medical marijuana only to treat only those illnesses specifically enumerated in the bill – cancer, glaucoma, HIV, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. The legislation also strictly regulates the licensing and location of facilities that produce or sell medical marijuana.
HOUSE BACKS MANDATORY DAILY PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE
The House of Representatives on April 2 voted 118-30 to require the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited, in English, in all public schools each day. Under existing law, the Pledge is required to be recited weekly in public schools, although they are free to do so daily if the wish and many do. Critics said the bill undermines local control and that individual schools should decide how often to the recite the Pledge.
HB 499 originally just required the daily recitation of the Pledge, but bill sponsor state Rep. Shane Roden, R-Cedar Hill, added the English-only provision in response to a New York High School’s recent decision to recite the Pledge in Arabic as an educational exercise during National Foreign Language Week.
HOUSE PASSES MEASURE TO LIMIT SPENDING, CUT TAXES
The House of Representatives on April 2 voted 108-41 in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would severely restrict state spending and that could routinely trigger permanent quarter-percentage-point cuts in the state income tax rate. The measure, HJR 34, now advances to the Senate. If approved by both chambers, HJR 34 automatically would go on the November 2016 statewide ballot for voter ratification.
Supporters say HJR 34 would keep future government growth in check. Opponents noted that Missouri already ranks near the bottom among the states in most funding categories and that the new restrictions in HJR 34 would cripple its ability to provide basic state services.
HIGHWAYS COMMISSION PICKS INTERIM MoDOT DIRECTOR
Missouri Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer Roberta Broeker will take over as interim director of the agency when current director Dave Nichols retires on May 1. The State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT’s governing authority, is conducting a nationwide search for a new director. Broeker has served as MoDOT’s CFO for a decade.