- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 27

Time for Missouri Supreme Court to enter Ferguson fray:

There are seven leaders in Missouri who have not yet been called on to address the long-long-buried problems that have been exhumed since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere in the St. Louis region.

The seven are a diverse group who, for the most part, rise above the political bickering that infests most of our other government institutions. Here are their names:

Mary R. Russell, Paul C. Wilson, Zel M. Fischer, George W. Draper III, Laura Denvir Stith, Patricia Breckenridge and Richard B. Teitelman. These are the judges of the Missouri Supreme Court.

They can and should play a major role in bringing about significant change to the broken government systems in north St. Louis County. Tens of thousands of Missouri’s citizens, most of them African-American, have been disenfranchised by the government that is supposed to serve them.

With a pen and not a sword, the Missouri Supreme Court can help rebuild Ferguson and pave a path toward justice.

Of all the societal issues that have bubbled up as a result of Ferguson’s summer of unrest - including racial strife, underfunded schools, divided government, police brutality and hostility - the one that might be easiest to fix is a municipal court system that treats traffic fines as an ATM for city treasuries and a clique of lawyers. Fixing the municipal courts could have a wide-ranging positive effect on other issues.

Already, various municipalities, including Ferguson, are seeking to make changes to a court system that sometimes, in effect, jails people for being poor. Separately, the officers of the various courts, municipal judges, lawyers and prosecutors, have formed a committee to recommend changes, most of them headed in the right direction.

But the Supreme Court should not let the fox do repairs on the hen house. Ferguson’s City Council announced its changes from on high without any public meetings, probably in violation of the Sunshine Law, thus invalidating changes that don’t go far enough anyway.

One of the biggest problems with the courts is the rampant conflict of interest between attorneys who often fill multiple roles - prosecutor in some of the county’s 81 municipal courts, judges in others. This is a system set up less to administer justice than to fill municipal coffers and enrich a few key players. Those players should not be trusted to fix what is broken.

Missouri’s Constitution entrusts that power to the Supreme Court. Article V, Section 4 of the constitution is clear: “The supreme court shall have general superintending control over all courts and tribunals. … Supervisory authority over all courts is vested in the supreme court, which may make appropriate delegations of this power.”

By law, municipal courts are extensions of the circuit courts and thus under the purview of the Supreme Court. And municipal courts, like so much of the fractured municipal governance in St. Louis County, are broken.

The nonprofit defense lawyers at Arch City Defenders have produced an outstanding white paper on this topic. It details the harassment - much of it outside existing constitutional protections - facing poor, black citizens in north St. Louis County. If the judges on the state’s highest court haven’t read it, they have failed in their duties to administer a fair and impartial court system. If they have read the report, but refuse to act, then they should consider retirement.

If the Supreme Court doesn’t act to respond to clear violations of civil rights, others will. Already, Arch City Defenders and two St. Louis University law professors, Brendan Roediger and John Ammann, are prepared to sue the municipal courts to protect the constitutional rights of citizens.

If various reform efforts don’t work, “we are prepared to file litigation and it won’t be six months from now,” Mr. Roediger said.

We realize there are some people who don’t see the fundamental injustice. Yes, if you’re caught speeding, you should pay the fine. If you’ve got the money, you hire a traffic lawyer who’s part of the clique and can grease the system.

But what if you don’t have $150, plus court costs, and the court won’t give you time to raise it? What if a speeding ticket is stacked on top of failure-to-appear warrant on a violation in another municipality? Pretty soon you’re $800 or so in the hole, and you go to jail and have to pay incarceration costs. You find yourself afraid to drive.

Most north St. Louis County municipalities actually issue more warrants for arrest each year than they have residents. Their police departments are tasked with writing tickets to offset declining sales and property taxes.

This is a much larger issue than a few people being unwilling or unable to pay fines. If the courts are ignoring constitutionally established restraints because they are using the court system as a fundraising tool, then this is the government tyranny that tea partiers worry about. These courts are an embarrassment to Missouri’s judicial system.

“You cannot take somebody into custody because they walk in and say I can’t pay my fine today,” said Sue McGraugh, supervisor of the criminal defense clinic at St. Louis University. You can, however, put them in jail if they skip a court date because they don’t know that.

“These municipal courts are the face of the court system,” said Michael Wolff, dean of the St. Louis University Law School and a former Supreme Court judge. “And some of it is pretty disgraceful.”

This is why the Supreme Court must act. Abuses in municipal courts in St. Louis County threaten faith in the entire system.

Here is what the court should do:

First, it should implement by rule a series of immediate reforms called for by SLU law professors and the Arch City Defenders, raising the standards of all municipal courts. Among those reforms:

- Order courts to cease issuing warrants on the charge of failure to appear unless defendants will receive the same protections they would receive in circuit court, including the appointment of public defenders.

- Order all municipal courts to operate openly.

- Order that in all cases, defendants are brought before a judge within 72 hours, or 24 hours in cases where an arrest is made without a warrant.

Second, the Supreme Court should appoint a special master, or a panel of such appointed judges, to convene a study of the St. Louis County municipal court system. That study should determine how many courts in the county have been or are continuing to fail to meet the constitutional standards met by circuit courts in Missouri. Any court that can’t meet the new standards established by the Supreme Court should close.

Finally, after receiving such a report, the Supreme Court should suggest to state lawmakers in their co-equal branch of government that the Legislature reform the courts, and consolidate all, or nearly all of them, under the umbrella of the existing 21st Judicial Circuit.

Imagine the domino effect of the Supreme Court simply moving to protect the judicial system from operating outside constitutional boundaries. Police can get back to the job of public safety. Courts can return to justice. Arbitrary boundaries in communities of poverty being used to rob Peter to pay Paul will be erased.

The Missouri Constitution is clear. The courts do not exist to be revenue-generating tools for cash-strapped cities. It’s time for the Missouri Supreme Court to exercise its constitutionally enshrined power and give the courts back to the people.


St. Joseph News-Press, Sept. 24

Shake-up can help lottery:

To hear Missouri Lottery officials tell it, they have tried pretty much everything in the pursuit of boosting profits to fund education.

Knowing this, Gov. Jay Nixon did the prudent thing in moving to replace four of the five sitting commission members in hopes that fresh ideas and perspectives will help.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch explained the problem this summer in an in-depth report. The newspaper found revenues from lottery tickets continue to climb, although at a slower rate than in the past, but profits fell $21 million in the past year and were $31 million short of the goal of $298.6 million.

The percentage of lottery revenues that goes back to education has fallen to a record low of 23.4 percent, the newspaper said. The actual return is below that in 2006 after adjusting for inflation.

Since the lottery is pledged to be a money-maker for public education, the profit figure is the only one that matters. These are dollars that officials had projected would be in hand after prize payouts, retailer commissions, advertising expenses and administrative costs.

May Scheve Reardon, lottery executive director, has said she is open to the idea of contracting for an independent study of prize payout levels, although in the same breath she notes the commission has paid for three similar studies since 2008. This issue bubbles up after a report from the governor’s office found the state has the fourth-highest prize payout rate nationally.

On another point, Ms. Reardon said she knows of no state contracting with gaming companies on the premise that they should maximize profits rather than gross sales. But she said she would look into that.

Managing a mature lottery is not easy. Ours, in place since 1986, struggles like others to attract new, younger players who will stick with the games well into adulthood. This push to attract and hold new players is a main reason why prize levels increase, and why new games like a planned $5 multistate Monopoly game will launch this fall with a $25 million grand prize and multiple $1 million winners.

These innovations are welcomed, but there is no upside to taxpayers unless more money is flowing to education.


Jefferson City News Tribune, Sept. 23

The business of simplifying and saving:

The impulse to reduce business fees is laudable but, as always, the proverbial devil will be in the details.

Secretary of State Jason Kander recently announced an initiative to cut fees paid by businesses in Missouri to the lowest in the nation.

Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, plans to pre-file legislation based on Kander’s proposal. Prefiling of bills begins Dec. 1 for the regular session that convenes in January.

Although the specifics have not been hammered out, Stephanie Fleming, a spokesperson for the secretary’s office, said the goal is to reduce fees to cover the processing costs.

The new initiative follows action by Kander in July to expand the online filing system, which increased electronic filings from five forms to about 35, almost every form required by the office. Businesses may access the website at www.sos.mo.gov/fileonline.

In making the announcement, Kander said: “Cutting business fees to the overall lowest in the country is another significant step we can take to simplify business creation and show the nation that Missouri is the best state in the U.S. to start a business.”

Wallingford added: “Small businesses want to spend their time and resources creating jobs, not paying fees.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the state’s largest business advocacy group, already has signaled its support.

We await specifics, but we’re on board with the concept.

Electronic filing offers dual virtues.

First, it enhances simplicity and convenience for companies doing business in Missouri.

And, when state government reduces its processing costs, the savings deserve to be passed on to businesses in the form of reduced fees.

The competition among states for economic development has been well documented.

Kander’s initiative has potential to provide Missouri with a desirable advantage.


The Joplin Globe, Sept. 26

Keep energy options:

What’s left? What’s left to power our electronic and piston-driven world? Coal? Think global warming. Think mercury emissions.

Natural gas or oil? Thinking fracking and, again, global warming.

Hydro? Think fisheries dying, even species extinction.

Solar? Think streamers (birds that ignite when they fly into the path of the concentrated sunlight).

Wind? Think blunt-force trauma and dismemberment.

Guess that just leaves nuclear.

In all seriousness, there is no perfect solution for powering the 21st century, but given the impact coal, oil and gas have on the climate, it’s obvious that wind and solar must become an even larger part of our energy supply in the future.

However, just last week the plug was pulled on a $400 million wind farm proposed for northwest Missouri. The company that planned it ultimately decided to look elsewhere because the modifications needed to protect the region’s wildlife made the plan financially unworkable.

Element Power, based in Oregon, had proposed the wind turbines near Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and several nearby conservation areas north of Kansas City. Squaw Creek attracts pelicans, ducks, trumpeter swans, blue-winged teals, sandhill cranes, blue herons, snow geese and smaller shorebirds.

The Associated Press noted: “The proposed location of the wind farm was criticized by the Missouri Department of Conservation, environmentalists and birding groups, who said it would endanger the birds and bats that migrate through the area.”

The threat to wildlife is real, and with some bird and bat species down to only a few thousand or perhaps only a few hundred in the wild, it shouldn’t be dismissed.

We would encourage this company not to give up on Missouri. Perhaps by working with the Department of Conservation and groups such as the American Bird Conservancy, alternative locations can be found in the state that, while imperfect, will be a better fit.

We also believe that bright minds will come up with mechanisms that will mitigate the impact wind and solar energy have on bird populations.

But no source of energy that we know of that will meet our long-term energy needs without having some form of environmental side effect.

Solar and wind, despite their impact, appear to be two of our best bets right now.

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