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Ferguson Commission Co-Chairs Urge Supreme Court of Missouri to Act on Behalf of Citizens


0Statement from Rev. Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure

[For a PDF version click here]

While our duties as co-chairs of the Ferguson Commission sunsetted along with the commission at the end of 2015, the alarming conclusions of the March 1, 2016 report of the Municipal Division Work Group to the Supreme Court of Missouri compels us to speak up on behalf of the 3,000-plus citizens whose voices are represented in the Ferguson Commission report. The Supreme Court of Missouri is the body with the constitutional supervisory power—and the responsibility—to consolidate the municipal courts in the 21st Judicial Circuit.

If the Supreme Court does not act, we call for the Department of Justice, in line with its letter regarding unconstitutional court practices sent to chief justices and court administrators across the country on March 14, 2016, to again intervene on behalf of the people of St. Louis county.

Racial equity is the cornerstone of the Ferguson Commission report’s findings on what can have the most impact toward a healthy and thriving St. Louis region. The report of the Municipal Division Work Group stated, “The complete elimination of actual racism is well beyond the power of legislatures and courts.” Our history tells us that discriminatory laws created by legislation and upheld in courts for hundreds of years are at the root of the disparate outcomes we see today. Those laws used the social construct of race as a tool to systemically award and deny economic opportunity.  The testimony and experiences of the poor and mostly black people whose lives are impacted by the disparate outcomes of our municipal courts tell us that the system those laws created is still very much alive. Bold actions by both the courts and the legislature that created our current system are critical to making it right today. 

The same history reminds us that the courts—from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS in 1954 to Liddell v. Board of Education of St. Louis, MO in 1972—are called to offer relief and remedies toward equitable citizenship in the face of institutional racism. Recognizing the racialized nature of the structure and operations of our municipal courts, the Missouri Supreme Court choosing not to act is akin to ignoring both Brown and Liddell and reaching back into our state’s sordid legal legacy marked by Dred Scott v. Sanford. Originating in Missouri, the 1857 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court determined that African Americans had no standing in the courts. Failure to act, now, would reinforce this decision.

At the structural level, the Missouri court system’s circuit court hierarchy is unmanageable in the 21st Judicial Circuit. With 81 courts, the presiding judge is responsible for oversight of over three times the number of courts in the next largest circuit (the 4th Judicial Circuit with 25 courts). In this climate of documented injustice, mistrust, and the damaged reputation of the municipal court system, no amount of municipal level reform – even the steps contained in Senate Bill 5 – has teeth without consolidation bringing realistically manageable oversight, enforcement and accountability. The system is broken and has been breaking people, families and trust in the courts for decades. The Supreme Court of the State of the Missouri must use its power to fix the system it oversees.  Workable proposals for consolidation have been developed by a number of groups.

Senate Bill 5 saw a legislature and governor from different parties along with thoughtful municipal officials coming to bold agreement on the need for municipal court reform. Community groups, legal assistance organizations, the business community and the Ferguson Commission report have made those same calls for reform and specifically for consolidation. Will the Supreme Court of Missouri ignore the unprecedented alignment of voices from across the political and philosophic spectrum and turn a blind eye to its power to change a system that is universally acknowledged to be broken, except by those that benefit financially from perpetuating it? If not the Supreme Court of Missouri, then who? The Constitution determines the power of the Courts and gives the Supreme Court responsibility for supervision. If the Supreme Court does not act in accordance with the call to consolidate the municipal courts of the 21st Judicial Circuit, it abdicates its responsibility to assure that all who come before courts receive equal justice under the law, and accepts responsibility for the ongoing significant damage to the reputation of the system of courts in Missouri.

While the Municipal Division Work Group reported that these issues seemed isolated to the 21st Judicial Circuit, it is clear from the statewide, national and international coverage of St. Louis county’s municipal courts that isolation does not matter. The state and the court’s reputation are at stake. More importantly people’s lives and livelihood are at stake. There is significant consensus on the solutions. We call on the Supreme Court of Missouri to step out of the game of “Pass The Buck” and step up on behalf of the people of Missouri.

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See also:

Before its sunset at the end of 2015, the Ferguson Commission created Forward Through Ferguson, an entity to be a catalyst for the infrastructure needed to make lasting positive change in the St. Louis region as outlined in the report. For more information see:http://forwardthroughferguson.org/implementation/