DOJ SAYS FAMILY COURT VIOLATES RIGHTS OF CHILDREN
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded the St. Louis County Family Court routinely violates the constitutional rights of juvenile defendants and also treats black children more harshly than white children. The Justice Department began investigating the family court nearly two years ago and issued a 60-page report on its findings on July 31.
The investigation found the court regularly fails to ensure child defendants have adequate representation, coercively requires children to admit guilt in violation of their constitutional right against self-incrimination, deprives them of the opportunity to challenge probable cause determinations and provides them with inadequate due process.
The report also found that black children were less likely to have their cases handled informally than white children, more likely to be held in detention prior to trial, more likely to be punished for violating their terms of supervision and more likely to be placed in state custody.
As is typical in such cases, the Justice Department will attempt to work out a consent decree under which the court agrees to take certain steps to resolve the problems and protect the constitutional rights of children who appear before it. If such an agreement isn’t reached, the department could sue and seek to have a federal judge enforce a resolution on the state court.
SENATE LEADER RESIGNING TO TAKE PRIVATE SECTOR JOB
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Peters, announced on July 31 he will resign effective Aug. 7 in order to take an as yet undisclosed private sector job. With Dempsey’s departure, the leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives will have resigned in the space of about three months. House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town & Country, stepped down under pressure on May 15 following news reports he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a 19-year-old Capitol intern.
Dempsey served in the House from 2001 until winning a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in 2007. He has served as Senate president pro tem since January 2013. His current term runs until January 2015, and he is prohibited by term limits from seeking re-election. Dempsey will be the first pro tem to leave office early since 1970 when senators ousted Senate President Pro Tem Earl Blackwell, D-Hillsboro, and replaced him with state Sen. J.F. Patterson, D-Caruthersville.
The Senate could elect a new president pro tem during the upcoming veto session, which begins Sept. 16. Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, is seeking the post. If chosen, Richard would be the first person in state history to serve as both Senate president pro tem and House speaker, a post he held from 2009 to 2011.
HIGH COURT DISMISSES CHALLENGE TO MACKS CREEK LAW
The Missouri Supreme Court on Aug. 4 dismissed a lawsuit that sought to challenge the state’s Macks Creek Law that limits how much revenue cities may collect from traffic fines and fees. In its unanimous decision, the court said the case has been rendered moot since the General Assembly radically overhauled the law earlier this year.
The Missouri Municipal League sued the state shortly after lawmakers made changes to the Macks Creek Law in 2013. The statute is named after a city that used to operate a well-known speed trap near the Lake of the Ozarks. The lawsuit, which a lower court judge had rejected, claimed the bill making those changes was unconstitutionally enacted and also had several substantive constitutional problems.
While the Municipal League’s appeal was pending, the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 5, which again rewrote the law. Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill into law on July 9. Writing for the court, Judge Paul Wilson said the enactment of SB 5 erased all claims raised in the lawsuit.
“Whatever else may be said about SB 5, there can be no doubt that it alters the landscape of the Macks Creek Law to such an extent that there is no longer any reason to analyze MML’s claims and no longer any way to fashion meaningful relief for those claims if they were to prevail,” Wilson wrote. “If MML wishes to challenge the provisions of SB 5, it must initiate a new suit and assert those claims with a new petition.”
LAWMAKER RENEWS GUILTY PLEA AFTER INNOCENCE CLAIM
Cole County Associate Circuit Judge Thomas Sodergren had state Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, hauled back into court on Aug. 4 after the third-term lawmaker pleaded guilty to a charge of driving while intoxicated on July 30 and then proclaimed his innocence in media interviews. In his return trip to court, Hinson re-entered his guilty plea to the misdemeanor charge and apologized to the judge for his public statements denying guilt, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Sodergren, also a Republican, told Hinson the lawmaker’s public contradiction of his previous statements to the court creates “distrust in the system,” the Post-Dispatch reported. After his initial guilty plea, Hinson told various media outlets he was innocent of any wrongdoing but pleaded guilty to DWI to avoid the possibility of more serious charges being filed against him by Republican Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson. In an extensive interview with The Missouri Times published July 31, Hinson said the criminal case was the result of “dirty politics” on the part Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration, although he provided no evidence to support the claim.
The DWI charge stemmed from a Feb. 2 incident in which a vehicle driven by Hinson hit a parked, state-owned pickup truck near the House of Representatives parking garage, causing $1,100 worth to the state vehicle and ripping the front grill off of Hinson’s car. Hinson left the scene but claimed in media interviews he reported the accident to police the next morning. However, it was police who contacted Hinson while investigating the accident as a hit and run, according to a police report cited by the Post-Dispatch.
Hinson initially denied having driven his car on the night in question and told police he was “too impaired” after drinking at birthday dinner in Columbia so another lawmaker had driven him home. However, that lawmaker told police he had done no such thing, and Hinson later changed his story, saying he had been driving but had only had one drink, according to the police report. With his guilty plea, Hinson agreed to pay a $500 fine plus $618.50 in court costs.
EFFORT TO SHIFT COLE COUNTY TO NONPARTISAN COURT
With the help of a former Missouri Supreme Court judge, an effort is underway for Cole County to join the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, under which judges are appointed instead of elected. Such a move would be significant if successful since most lawsuits challenging state laws or actions of state agencies must be filed in Cole County as the home county of the state capital of Jefferson City.
State judges in most counties must run for office in standard partisan elections. In counties under the nonpartisan plan, however, applicants to fill a given judicial vacancy are vetted by an independent nominating commission, which submits the names of three finalists to the governor, who must select one or forfeit the appointment to the commission. The six jurisdictions currently under the nonpartisan plan are Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties, plus St. Louis city. Judges of the Supreme Court and Missouri Court of Appeals also are chosen under the nonpartisan system.
A group called Cole Countians to Preserve Fair and Impartial Courts has been established to gather the roughly 4,000 signatures of registered voters needed to put the matter on November 2016 ballot in the county. The group’s leaders include former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson, an appointee of Republican Gov. John Ashcroft who served on the court from 1985 to 1998.
In a news release, the group said harsh attacks ads funded by out-of-state interests in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce’s re-election bid in 2014 prompted the effort to move the county under the nonpartisan plan. More than $300,000 was spent trying to unseat Joyce, a Democrat, according to the news release.
“The Cole County Courthouse is not for sale,” said former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson. “Now is the time for Cole Counties to send a message that politics do not belong in the courtroom and that we will not allow our courthouse to be sold to the highest bidder.”
HOUSE REPUBLICANS SELECT NEW MAJORITY FLOOR LEADER
House Republicans on July 31 elected state Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Kansas City, to serve as majority floor leader beginning with the upcoming veto session that begins Sept. 16. Cierpiot is in his third House term and has served as assistant majority leader since January.
The majority leader determines what bills the House of Representatives debates, when those debates take place and for how long. The post became vacant in May after its previous occupant, state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, was elected House speaker following the sudden resignation of the previous speaker.
STATE BORROWS $200 MILLION FROM BUDGET RESERVE
The state has borrowed $200 million from its Budget Reserve Fund for cash flow purposes after sluggish state revenue collections during the first month of the 2016 fiscal year. Under the Missouri Constitution, the state commissioner of administration can access the $500-million fund to cover cash-flow needs on his own initiative without legislative approval. The money must be repaid by May 15, 2016.
Net state general revenue for July 2015, the opening month of FY 2016, decreased 1.2 percent compared to July 2014, going from $512.9 million last year to $506.9 million this year.