SUPREME COURT CREATES RACIAL FAIRNESS COMMISSION
The Missouri Supreme Court on Oct. 6 issued an order creating the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness to address the problem of bias in the state judicial system. The 52-member commission consisting of judges and attorneys is charged with reviewing current court practices and recommending changes to “ensure fairness, impartiality, equal access and full participation for racial and ethnic minorities in the judicial process and in the practice of law,” according to the order.
The commission will be in place for at least four years. It is to deliver its first report to the Supreme Court by June 1 and then every six months thereafter. Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge announced the commission’s creation during an Oct. 8 speech at the joint annual meeting of the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri.
“We all need to do everything we can to ensure that every individual in every case in our system of justice is treated with respect and has his or her case adjudicated fairly and impartially according to the law,” Breckenridge said. “Until that is true in 100 percent of our courts, we cannot rest. Even a perception of justice denied anywhere should concern us all, no matter who or where we are.”
The court directed the commission to examine racial and ethnic bias in the judicial system generally, and the civil and criminal justice systems individually, as well as the juvenile justice system, municipal courts and the legal profession.
The commission’s creation is the latest of several steps the Supreme Court has taken over the last year to address problems in the judicial system. The court took control of the Ferguson Municipal Court earlier this year after a federal investigation found it operated primarily to generate revenue to for the city and routinely violated the constitutional rights of defendants. The court later appointed a task force led by two former state chief justices to address abuses by municipal courts in general. The work of that group is continuing.
NIXON WILL IMPLEMENT UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFIT CUTS
Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration intends to implement a controversial new law cutting maximum unemployment benefits despite maintaining the legislation was unconstitutionally enacted, The Associated Press reported on Oct. 15. However, a lawsuit has been filed in Cole County Circuit Court challenging the validity of the law and seeking an injunction blocking the state from enforcing the measure when it takes effect in January.
HB 150 cuts the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits from 20 weeks, which is already lower than the 26 weeks offered by all but a few states, to as low as 13 weeks based on the statewide unemployment rate. The bill doesn’t take into account regional economic differences so residents in counties with high unemployment would still receive reduced benefits if statewide unemployment is below 6 percent. The statewide unemployment rate stood at 5.3 percent in September, although unemployment neared 10 percent in some Missouri counties.
Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed HB 150 in May. Although the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to override during the regular legislative session, the Senate, also is under GOP control, took no action before the session ended May 15. In the past, a veto override pursued by one chamber during the regular session but not the other had been deemed ineligible for consideration during the legislature’s annual veto session. With HB 150, however, the Senate decided it still had jurisdiction to override the bill during veto session, which it chose to do. Nixon and others, including former Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff, have argued the Senate’s window for overriding the bill closed in May.
IMMIGRANT STUDENTS SUE OVER DENIAL OF LOWER TUITION
The American Civil Liberties Union on Oct. 13 sued three Missouri public colleges for charging certain immigrant students who are Missouri residents the higher, out-of-state tuition rate, according to The Associated Press. The ACLU filed separate cases on behalf of three students against the University of Missouri Board of Curators, Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City and St. Louis Community College.
At issue is language Republican lawmakers last spring inserted in the title of the appropriations bill that provides state funding for public colleges and universities. The disputed wording purports to prohibit schools from charging in-state tuition to Missouri students who were brought to this country illegally as children. However, the restriction isn’t included in the actual statutory language of the bill, and the Missouri Supreme Court in the past has ruled that the title clause of legislation isn’t law.
The lawsuits argue that because the restriction isn’t legally enforceable, the schools wrongfully charged them the out-of-state tuition rate, which is substantially more expensive. A separate state law that prohibits non-citizen Missouri students from participating in the state’s A+ Scholarship program and was enacted in September over a gubernatorial veto isn’t being challenged in the lawsuits.
JUDGE STRIKES DOWN PLANNED STL MINIMUM WAGE HIKE
St. Louis City Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer of Oct. 14 ruled a recently enacted St. Louis ordinance that would have raised to the minimum wage in the city limits to $11 an hour by 2018 conflicts with a state law that currently sets Missouri’s hourly minimum wage at $7.65, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported. City officials plan to appeal the decision, according to the paper.
Ohmer’s ruling came just hours before the first of several phased-in wage hikes over the next two years, this one taking the city’s minimum to $8.25 an hour, was scheduled to take effect on Oct. 15. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a coalition of business groups, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Associated Industries of Missouri.