Mar 12, 2015 – Weekly Capitol Update

SUPREME COURT TAKES OVER FERGUSON MUNICIPAL COURT

The Missouri Supreme Court on March 9 ordered the takeover of the Ferguson Municipal Court, transferring all of its pending and future cases to the St. Louis County Circuit Court and temporarily reassigning Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter to handle those cases. The Missouri Constitution grants the Supreme Court “general superintending control” over all lower courts in the state.

The high court’s action came just days after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing 102-page report documenting numerous abuses by Ferguson’s police department and municipal court and accusing them of operating primarily for the purpose of producing revenue for the city with little regard for constitutional rights of citizens, particularly those who are black or poor. The report alleged the city’s judge routinely deprived defendants of their constitutional rights, imposed illegal fees and took punitive action against those who challenged their cases. The Ferguson judge resigned shortly after the Supreme Court takeover.

The DOJ report noted that the unconstitutional police and court practices it cited in Ferguson are common in other St. Louis County municipalities. In a news release announcing the Ferguson takeover, Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell said the Supreme Court is considering changes in how municipal courts statewide operate to ensure that justice is administered and the rights of defendants are protected.

“More than two-thirds of all Missouri court cases are filed in the municipal divisions,” Russell said. “Though these are not courts of record, they are the first – and sometimes the only – impression Missourians have of their court system. “Although we recognize the local control our statutes give these uniquely local entities, we must not sacrifice individual rights and society’s collective commitment to justice.”

 

FEDERAL COURT STRIKES DOWN CHURCH PROTEST LAW

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on March 9 ruled a 2012 Missouri law banning protests at or near houses of worship violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The appellate court reversed a district judge’s decision upholding the law.

The House of Worship Protection Act makes it a crime to “intentionally and unreasonably” disturb worship services at any church, synagogue, mosque or other facility used for religious purposes. A first or second offense is a misdemeanor while any subsequent offense is a felony.

The challenge to the law was brought by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which advocates on behalf of those who have been sexually abused by clergy, and Call to Action Inc., a group that pushes for changes in the Catholic Church. Members of both organizations sometimes protest outside of Catholic churches.

 

HOUSE PASSES $26.1 BILLION STATE BUDGET FOR FY 2016

The House of Representatives on March 12 approved a $26.1 billion state operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The 13 appropriations bills that make up the operating budget now advance to the Senate. Lawmakers face a May 8 constitutional deadline for granting final approval to the budget bills.

The proposed budget includes a $74 million increase in basic state funding for local school districts. Even with the bump, however, K-12 funding would remain $408 million short of what state law says it should be. The current education funding formula was enacted in 2005 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by a Republican governor but has never been fully funded. The budget also includes $12 million in additional funding for the state’s colleges and universities.

For the third straight year, the Republican House majority is refusing to include federal funding in the state budget to expand Medicaid eligibility in Missouri to 138 percent of the federal poverty level– an annual income of $32,500 for a family of four or $15,856 for an individual. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would pay the full cost of the expansion for FY 2016.

 

HOUSE PRELIMINARILY APPROVES ANTI-BULLYING BILL

The House of Representatives on March 10 granted first-round approval to legislation intended to strengthen local school polices against bullying. Another vote is required to send the bill, HB 458, to the Senate.

HB 458 would require districts to establish clear policies for students to report bullying and for district officials to promptly investigate those reports. The bill also would prohibit reprisals or retaliation against those who report acts of bullying. In addition, it would expand the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying via electronic communications.

Some lawmakers said that although the bill would modestly improve efforts to prevent and punish bullying, it could be made much stronger by specifically prohibiting bullying based on race, religion, sexual orientation and other factors.