The report released last week by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice revealed many disturbing aspects about the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, with troubling implications for other municipal courts in St. Louis County and maybe even other states. First, the report, prompted by the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer last August, found that Ferguson law enforcement efforts are focused on generating revenue and its practices violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans.
Then the report concluded that the focus on revenue generation has also fundamentally compromised the role of the municipal court — without any resistance by the court and even with its complicity. The report stated:
The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety. . . .
[T]hese court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.
(In 2012, the Conference of State Court Administrators produced a position paper entitled “Courts are Not Revenue Centers,” and the National Center for State Courts has developed “Principles of Judicial Administration” reflecting that policy).
On Monday, “to help restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division,” the Missouri Supreme Court transferred a court of appeals judge to the St. Louis County Circuit Court where he will be assigned to hear all of Ferguson’s pending and future municipal division cases. He will also have “the authority to revise court policies and procedures to ensure the rights of defendants and to help restore the integrity of the system.” In its press release, the Court stated it is also is examining what reforms are needed state-wide.
According to news reports, the judge mentioned in the DOJ report has resigned from his Ferguson position, but not from another municipal judgeship.
City officials blamed a pervasive lack of “personal responsibility” among “certain segments” of the community for the high numbers of violations, escalating fines, and jail time but condoned “a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends,” the DOJ report notes. The report found that city officials, including the judge and court clerk, routinely assisted friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating citations, fines, and fees in the Ferguson court and surrounding municipalities. One local judge is quoted in news stories as saying ticket-fixing “goes on in every city, every state. It just does.”
That is unfortunately true, but it does not have to be tolerated and is a sanctionable, even removable offense for judges with several cases each year.
For example, in 2012, the California Commission on Judicial Performance removed a judge for diverting to his own court and acting on traffic tickets issued to his son-in-law, friends, and the pastor of his church, improperly waiving or suspending all or practically all fines and fees or granting a continuance. Emphasizing that, “in the public’s eye, ticket fixing is the quintessential bad act of a judge,” the Commission explained that the judge’s pattern of misconduct “created both the appearance and the reality of a two-track system of justice—one for his friends and family and another for all others.”
Also in 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court removed a judge for dismissing cases and inappropriately disposing of cases without holding hearings and without notice to or the authorization of the prosecuting attorney, including fixing traffic citations issued to himself, his spouse, and his staff, in addition to other misconduct. The Court rejected the judge’s argument that he was just providing “optimum, convenient service.” The Court noted that, “while some citizens received the ‘optimum, convenient service’ of having their tickets and charges summarily dismissed, other citizens were forced to endure the inconvenience and burden of countless adjournments and delays, requiring frequent court appearances. It is unclear how this latter group fit into respondent’s theory of providing ‘optimum, convenient service.’”
In 2014, in response to a former judge’s defense to disciplinary charges that he had fixed tickets “out of fear of losing his job” and in response to “other political pressures,” the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct emphasized:
Given that the foundation of the justice system in a modern democratic society rests on the guarantee of an independent and impartial judiciary, a judge who disposes of cases out of fear that those in power will terminate him, or to satisfy the political or financial interests of an entirely separate branch of government, cannot be — nor can he be seen to be — independent. By definition, a judge who is not independent cannot be impartial.
That explanation has particular significance following the DOJ report.