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.
business get organized and empower them to grow. Lawyers hold businesses accountable by
ensuring that injured people obtain justice.
federal, state, and municipal prosecutors - pursue criminals in the courts. Lawyers
defend the rights of the accused, of the innocent and of the guilty.
cultural institutions and serve on non-profit boards. Lawyers support causes of
all stripes, using words to change minds.
research, and write.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
equality and municipal courts are not the only envelopes City lawyers 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.
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.
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.
makes me glad - and proud - to be a mayor who is a lawyer.