JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri's chief justice called for increased scrutiny of the state's municipal courts Thursday following events in Ferguson after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
"Courts should primarily exist to help people resolve their legal dispute," Chief Justice Mary Russell said during her State of the Judiciary speech to legislators. "If they serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges, this creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality."
Legal defense advocates cited the abundance of municipal court fines faced by residents as one cause of anger in the St. Louis area following August's fatal shooting of Brown, who is black, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The protests that followed Brown's death occasionally turned violent.
Proponents of changes to the court system say the courts serve to generate revenue for cities, and the fines can be particularly difficult to pay for some of the poorest residents of the St. Louis area. Russell said "recent events" invited increased review of the municipal courts.
The state's highest court earlier this month told municipal courts they must give more time to individuals who show they cannot pay a fine.
She said the municipal courts are often the first interaction Missourians have with the judicial system and handle more than two-thirds of cases filed in the state's courts.
Lawmakers are considering bills aimed at limiting local revenue from traffic violations handled in municipal courts. Russell acknowledged lawmakers' interest in the topic and said municipal divisions that were not operating correctly should not overshadow good work being done elsewhere.
Her call for people in municipal courts to be treated with respect received a standing ovation from both Republicans and Democrats.
Russell also said the state's court system was working to implement new technology to increase efficiency, working to protect children in the state and expanding programs to assist veterans and at-risk youth.
She also called for action on laws protecting older Missourians from abuse, neglect and fraud.
"It is incumbent on us to re-examine the laws to ensure that guardians and conservators promote independence, not dependence, for those in their care," Russell said.