- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Springfield News-Leader, April 1

Reducing domestic violence takes a community commitment:

Domestic violence in the Ozarks is more complicated than our community realizes, and agencies striving to help need more support.

Those two messages rang true and often during a community conversation about domestic violence, hosted by the News-Leader last week. Five local experts spoke passionately and intelligently about domestic violence with a group of Springfieldians concerned about the current state of our city. The problem isn’t new, they said. It’s becoming more visible. They spent much of the time advising attendees on how to address domestic violence.

Most important, perhaps, is the commitment we all must make to send a clear message to victims and those who abuse them.

“We need a groundswell in the community that will say, ‘We do not tolerate domestic violence in our community.’ Because judges, everyone, listens to you. We need to say we will not tolerate domestic violence offenders. We will not tolerate those who abuse women,” said Stephanie Wan, Greene County Prosecutors Office’s first assistant prosecuting attorney.

“If people hear that message, that will come through in jury trials, it will come through in judges, and we will hold offenders accountable.”

Domestic violence is ugly. It hurts. And as we’ve seen too often in domestic crimes so far this year, people are dying.

Many victims are experts at hiding abuse until they are ready to leave, said Lauryl Wagoner, domestic violence victim advocate at the Victim Center. As a survivor of domestic violence, Deborah Holt said building trust with someone being abused is key to helping them. Offer to listen; to be there (and mean it!) when they are ready to leave - and find free resources to help.

There’s a healthy partnership between social and legal agencies to help victims, but it’s hard to talk about as a community. For some, there is a lack of understanding: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” might be asked. (Or “he,” in some cases).

That’s why it’s complicated, panelists said. Capt. David Millsap, with the Springfield Police Department and member of the Family Violence Task Force, talked about the lethality assessment officers use now, which has led to more referrals to the Victim Center and Harmony House.

But there may be “no room at the inn,” he said, at Harmony House, with 110 beds often filled to capacity. In 2014, more than 2,300 women and children needing shelter were turned away, up from 735 in 2011, said Lisa Farmer, Harmony House executive director. Victims may need to call daily until a bed becomes available.

That’s a problem, and the reason the organization is seeking a larger building to help more families. They also need funding to help victims find permanent housing after leaving Harmony House, she said. Many don’t have enough money for a lease or utility deposit.

Wading through the legal process - whether prosecution or seeking divorce - is onerous, Wan said. Millsap and Wan hope to see a one-stop legal and counseling location established someday, as some other cities have done - and that is being explored.

So how can talking about domestic violence - and talking about it again! - help?

It’s about changing culture. If we say to each other, ‘we don’t accept this behavior,’ that sends a strong message to abusers. Kids will be be taught early about what behavior is not OK. And we hope it sends a message to victims: You don’t have to feel ashamed. You can seek help without being judged.

Increasing awareness might also inspire donations of funds or goods to helping agencies like Harmony House and the Victim Center.

We can change the culture, and we must, to help our friends and neighbors in the Ozarks.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 3

Missouri Supreme Court must not outsource judicial integrity:

COMES NOW, the Editorial Board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and for its Suggestions to the Missouri Supreme Court in Support of Reform to and Enforcement of the Code of Judicial Conduct and attorney practice and procedure in the Municipal Division of the St. Louis County Circuit Court states:

STATEMENTS OF FACT

On Thursday (April 2), the Court solicited comments from the public concerning municipal courts and any suggested practices and procedures to improve said courts.

This request came the day after Missouri Speaker of the House John Diehl announced his intention to amend a Senate proposal on municipal court reform with several suggestions of his own. Included would be requiring municipal judges to meet the same ethical standards required of other judges in the state, such as circuit court, appellate court and Supreme Court judges.

Currently judges in most of the 82 municipal courts in St. Louis County do not meet such standards. As outlined in a Post-Dispatch story by reporters Jeremy Kohler, Stephen Deere and Jennifer Mann, (Exhibit A), there are numerous municipal judges who violate the traditional standards of ethics met by most judges in the state. They fill conflicting roles in different venues - judge in one city, prosecutor in the next, defense attorney in another. Often they sit in front of attorneys one day who will be adversaries or judges the next, cutting deals as they go.

There are examples also outlined by the Post-Dispatch reporters (we will call them Exhibit B), in which some judges conspired with wealthy friends to fix tickets in exchange for goods or services. There are numerous other examples outlined by nonprofit attorneys Arch City Defenders in their white paper published last fall (Exhibit C). This exhibit explains how poor defendants often are jailed by these corrupt courts for not being able to pay the fines stacked upon fines that started with a simple moving violation. And there are even still other examples outlined by the various lawsuits filed by St. Louis University School of Law professors (Exhibit D) which are making their way through the court system.

The Court has already determined that it has both the constitutional authority and responsibility to address these situations. In January, the Court added protections to its Rule 37 guiding how municipal courts deal with indigent defendants. The rule change is intended to limit the ability of the courts to serve as de facto debtor’s prisons, where defendants who are unable to pay unconstitutional fines ultimately are jailed instead.

In March, following the release of the devastating Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department and municipal court (Exhibit E), the Court replaced the municipal judge with an experienced appellate court judge. In effect, the Supreme Court took over a municipal court that had been using the legal system as not much more than a fundraising tool for a cash-strapped city.

QUESTIONS PRESENTED

These facts present the Court with two important questions:

1. Does the Court have the option to ignore its constitutional duty to urgently exercise its “supervisory authority” over the municipal courts as outlined in Article V, Section 4 of the Missouri Constitution?

2. Would the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision to outsource its responsibility over the Code of Judicial Conduct, as it affects the municipal courts, to the General Assembly represent a dereliction of the court’s constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government, and would it undermine the independence and integrity of the judicial branch?

DISCUSSION

In September 2014, this editorial board called on the Court to exercise its role in fixing longstanding municipal court problems in the St. Louis region. The problems became very public following the unrest in Ferguson following the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. But the Court, and the entire legal community, has known of the problems in municipal court and its negative effect on the independence and integrity of the court system at least since 1966. That’s when a University of Missouri law professor called them the “misshapen stepchildren” of the judicial system in a stinging research paper (Exhibit F) calling for the same sort of change needed now.

With each month, and each new report, and each new lawsuit, and each new pronouncement from leaders in the legal community, such as SLU professor Brendan Roediger, or Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Knight (Exhibit G), that the system is an “embarrassment” to the legal community, it becomes clear that more action is necessary.

But action from whom? A Legislature which has barely been able to address its own ethics problems over the years?

To wit: The Legislature literally has inhabited an almost ethics-free zone for decades. During this time its members could take unlimited gifts from lobbyists. Since 2008, lawmakers threw out voter-approved campaign finance limits, allowing themselves to take unlimited campaign donations. They fixed it so donations could be passed among multiple committees to hide their source.

Now, only this year has the Legislature begun to take what many of its own members are calling “baby steps” to address that rotten status quo. The House and Senate have passed competing versions of bills that would limit lobbyists gifts and limit the existing conflicts between lawmakers lining up their lobbyist jobs before they are even out of the Capitol. But the Senate’s version of the bill wouldn’t even affect current lawmakers.

This is not the body that should be fixing the blatant ethics and conflict of interest violations taking place among municipal judges, particularly in the St. Louis region.

In fact, the Court has previously opined, in the 1999 Weinstock v. Holden case (Exhibit H), that the Legislature cannot encroach on the Court’s power to regulate judicial conduct. Wrote the Court in that case: “The judicial branch, through its Code of Judicial Conduct, provides canons to guide judges through possible conflicts of interest, and to require judges to carry out their adjudicatory duties impartially. Rule 2, Canons 1, 2, and 3. By establishing these rules for proper judicial conduct, this Court has exercised its powers under article V, sections 4 and 5, and the separation of powers provision in our Constitution prevents the legislature from encroaching on this judicial function.”

The problem, then, as the Court previously determined in making adjustment to Rule 37, is that the Court either needs to rework its own Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Rule 2, or it needs to do a better job of applying that rule to its municipal divisions.

Should the Court require, as it should, all municipal judges to meet the ethical and conflict of interest responsibilities of circuit and county judges, it will have serious effects on the operations of municipal courts. Many, if not all, will have to fold if they can’t afford full-time judges. Their cases would be pushed to the circuit courts, adding to already heavy caseloads.

This may give the Court pause in deciding whether to exercise its constitutional power. That should not be the Court’s concern. The Court has often made decisions which then require the Legislative branch to change statutes to respond to a constitutional crisis. School finance decisions come to mind, as well as fairly recent decisions on cases involving tax revenue or caps on lawsuit damages. So be it. That is how the proper balance of power should work.

The Court’s responsibility is twofold: to protect the civil rights of Missouri citizens, and to protect the independence and integrity of the judicial system. If the Court makes the right decision, it will be the Legislature’s job to find a proper solution. Lawmakers could choose to fold 82 municipal courts into a single countywide municipal court, with north, south and west divisions.

CONCLUSION

The state Constitution, the Court’s own precedents and its existing Code of Judicial Conduct, demand that the Court continue down its current path and ensure that all judges, including those at municipal divisions, are following the same ethical codes and avoiding conflicts of interest.

The Court should not outsource its responsibility to the Legislature. But it should appoint a special master to coordinate with various lawmaking bodies which will have to implement the new reality: The rights of citizens are more important than the profits of members of the Bar and certain municipalities.

___

St. Joseph News-Press, April 3

Making videos public after investigations:

A proposal advancing in the Missouri General Assembly would make it difficult and costly for the public to ever see what law enforcement sees when it captures video on a dashboard camera or body camera.

To obtain a video in this instance, you would need to hire an attorney and obtain a court order.

Think that is bad? Well, the original proposal would have required the video be permanently inaccessible to the general public. We have local state Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, to thank for that.

These are misguided ideas that start with the notion that police video is only of use to a select few people investigating a crime or defending themselves from claims of mistreatment. In fact, video, like any other information, holds the potential for enlightening many more people about what really occurs in a police stop, arrest or search.

To the degree a video shows responsible behaviors - of the police or a member of the public - that holds the potential to foster understanding and support. On the other hand, withholding information is a sure path to fostering distrust and misinformation.

House Bill 762 was offered by Rep. Higdon in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and the many resulting efforts in the legislature to compel change, including requiring the use of body cameras by all law enforcement officers.

We are not convinced that makes sense, particularly for communities where that would entail a financial hardship. But if video is recorded, we feel strongly it should be made public under existing rules governing dashboard camera videos.

In those instances, the video is considered an “investigative record,” and as such it is withheld until the investigation is complete. This is an acceptable compromise that doesn’t interfere with police work and preserves the public’s standing to review this information.

And some videos still would not be open. In those instances where there is “an expectation of privacy,” such as video in a private residence or when young juveniles are involved, the video records would be closed to the public. That is the case already.

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The Joplin Globe, April 5

House version of ethics reform makes progress:

When you start with nothing - no caps on contributions, no caps on lobbyist gifts and no cooling-off period for lawmakers who go directly to becoming a lobbyist - any change has to be an improvement.

As it stands now, Missouri fails in all three categories of ethics. We are the worst in the country in terms of ethics controls. So we figure we have nothing to lose and everything to gain with the pending ethics legislation.

On Thursday, the Missouri House passed its version of a bill passed by the Missouri Senate earlier this year. The Senate bill was brought to the table by majority leader Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, early in the session as a way to get the discussion started. His version bans elected officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office, but it doesn’t apply to those who are currently in office.

The House version goes a step further. It would cap lobbyist gifts at $25. While it lowers the cooling off period to one year, it includes those who are currently in office. Both versions of the bill would ban out-of-state trips paid for by lobbyists. And both prohibit elected officials from serving as paid political consultants while still in office.

Do we think it’s enough? No. But can you believe have far we’ve sunk?

We would prefer to see a no-gift policy. There’s no need for lobbyists to buy lawmakers anything. And we are disappointed that neither the Senate nor the House bills address any limits on campaign contributions, something that’s also out of control.

The House version now goes back to the Senate, where our state leaders there can either pass it or work through the differences.

In our view, the House version does the most toward getting Missouri back on the right track. It’s imperative that the abuses of the system by some be stopped. Let’s not kick this can down the road yet another year.

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