6 min read
Posted on 05.01.15
  • 6 min read
  • Posted on 05.01.15
  • Filed under
  • Lawyer
  • Arch City Defenders
  • Gordon Schweitzer
  • Winston Calvert
  • marriage equality
  • municipal courts
  • St. Louis

Today is the Bar Association of Metro St. Louis's Law Day. It is the perfect occasion to remind ourselves of the role lawyers play in our City.

Lawyers help business get organized and empower them to grow. Lawyers hold businesses accountable by ensuring that injured people obtain justice.

Lawyers - federal, state, and municipal prosecutors - pursue criminals in the courts. Lawyers defend the rights of the accused, of the innocent and of the guilty.

Lawyers lead cultural institutions and serve on non-profit boards. Lawyers support causes of all stripes, using words to change minds.

Lawyers teach, research, and write.

Lawyers, including several who have volunteered their services to the City on behalf of their neighborhoods, make St. Louis a better place to live and work.

This is an important moment for lawyers in our city. We have region's attention - and the country's.

I believe that our city's future will be determined, in part, by how well we lawyers reform, re-frame, and re-invigorate our criminal and civil justice administrations, and by how well we lawyers use the tools we have acquired in school and in practice to build safe, fair communities.

Let me tell you what I mean.

I respect the Missouri General Assembly, some of whose members are lawyers. Much of what it has done has turned out well for people of the region.

But it's no secret that I've been frustrated by some of what has happened in Jefferson City in recent years:

State laws that discriminate against our citizens.

State laws that make it harder for us to keep our constituents safe.

State laws that hold us back from pursuing important social justice reforms.

Too often (because even once would be too often) one of the most comfortable directions in Jefferson City has been backwards.

I am committed to taking a stand to reverse this trend.

So, one year ago this week, I appointed a new City Counselor, Winston Calvert, and I told him I wanted to start pushing the envelope. I told him it was time for our City to lead the region and the state in a bolder, more progressive direction. I knew that if the City of St. Louis was not willing to lead the legal reforms necessary to propel our region and our state forward, then it was unlikely that anyone else would.

I first asked Winston to focus on the provision of our state constitution that denied gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. As a person, I knew these laws were unkind, unfair, and unnecessary. As a lawyer, I knew they were unconstitutional. Last June, we took those laws on when I invited four same-sex couples to get married in my office. That day, for the first time in the history of our state, same-sex couples were legally married.

We knew it would spark a lawsuit, and we welcomed it. In November, Judge Rex Burlison issued a ruling striking down Missouri's discriminatory marriage laws. That afternoon, the City began issuing more marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The next morning, St. Louis County followed our lead. A couple days later, Jackson County did the same. We're still waiting for the rest of the counties in the state to follow the law, but, right now, a same-sex couple can obtain a legal marriage license in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and Jackson County. We knew the City had to lead the way, and we did.

Our region has seen a lot of change in the past year. A lot of it has been progress. But we've also been reminded of just how many challenges we still face when it comes to social justice and equal treatment under the law.

One of the issues at the forefront of the post-Ferguson legal environment is municipal courts. The United States Department of Justice's report on Ferguson's municipal court system was troubling. The circumstances outlined in the report should worry all lawyers. And, the fact is that Ferguson does not stand alone.

But I'm proud to say that the City's municipal court is leading the way in the opposite direction from the municipal courts in St. Louis County. Our municipal court has the critical mass needed to support full-time, professional judges who focus on the fair and impartial administration of justice. I have been as clear as I can be about our municipal court: municipal courts should enforce the law to promote public safety and quality of life. It is not their job to generate revenue to support the City's operations.

And we have implemented reforms with this value in mind. This fall, a group of forward-thinking lawyers proposed a state-wide rule that municipal courts consider a defendant's ability to pay when determining how much a fine should be. The legislature was not enthusiastic. Many of the municipalities in St. Louis County ignored it. We embraced it. And we took it a step further: municipal court judges in the City now consider not only a defendant's ability to pay, but they also consider whether a defendant should be ordered to perform community service in lieu of a fine. There is absolutely no ambiguity in the City of St. Louis: a municipal judge will not send a defendant to jail just because he can't pay a fine.

I have also encouraged our municipal court to look for ways to bring as many people as possible into compliance with the law. We've long had a "Compliance Week" program, where we encourage people to come downtown to our municipal courthouse, get out of warrant status, and receive a new court date. But last month, we took went even further. We launched a pilot project taking our municipal court out into the neighborhoods. In one day, at two recreation centers -- one south and one north -- our municipal court judges helped hundreds of people get out of warrant status and into compliance with the law.

The program was so successful that we're preparing to take our municipal courts into the neighborhoods on a regular basis, several times a month. We're calling it "Community Court." We hope to roll out the program this summer and fall.

And we're working on even more reforms in our municipal court. With the guidance of Judge Gordon Schweitzer, we want to ensure that our municipal court is accessible to people who don't speak English, and to people whose presence in our country is undocumented. I expect to be making even more announcements about these reforms soon.

The City is also helping to shape the future of municipal courts throughout our region by funding important organizations like Arch City Defenders. Few people realize is that the City of St. Louis is the primary financial supporter of Arch City Defenders. We have continued that support throughout the municipal court crisis because we believe in the justice system and we believe that the work they do is making the justice system better for everyone.

Marriage equality and municipal courts are not the only envelopes City lawyers are pushing.

There are state laws, current and proposed, that make it harder for us to address the growing disparities between rich and poor. But we're going to take them on.

There are state laws that make it harder for us to keep our city safe. Amendment 5, for example, makes our state more dangerous, and is a threat to our continued safety. I have proposed that the General Assembly reconsider the Amendment, and put on the ballot a new Amendment to remedy the worst impacts that amendment has had. Meanwhile, we're exploring every option to implement legislation and take legal actions to roll it back, prevent its expansion in judicial decisions, and push its limits.

Whatever the issue, if a legal reform will make the city safer or better, we will not be shy about pursuing it. If we have to pursue it legislatively, we will. If we have to pursue it in court, we will. If we have to pursue it in Jefferson City, we will. We will be relentless in pursuing the legal reforms necessary to continue the revitalization of our City.

And that makes me glad - and proud - to be a mayor who is a lawyer.