Several North St. Louis County Municipalities have emerged victorious in their lawsuit regarding the municipal court reform laws passed into law in August of 2015. The Municipalities of Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel-ridge, Bel-nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park and Vinita Park filed a lawsuit in November of 2015 alleging Senate Bill 5 was unlawful.
A Judge in Cole County agreed with them and struck down several portions of the law. The law reduced the amount of money a municipality could receiving from traffic ticket revenue to 12.5% from the 30% previously allowed. The 12.5% was limited only to the St. Louis County area due to the wording in the statute. The municipalities alleged that this 60% reduction with no alternative forms of funding would wreak havoc on St. Louis County Municipalities. Moreover, municipalities in the St. Louis County area would be required to undergo audits and expensive administrative activities to meet minimum standards such as having accredited police departments in six years. Judge Beetem struck down the provisions as no alternative funds were provided, making this law an unfunded mandate and contrary to the Missouri Constitution.
The municipal court reform bill or Senate Bill 5 arose from the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the resulting civil unrest. Investigations and reports have accused St. Louis County Municipalities of using their court systems as abusive fundraising tools.
Both Plaintiffs and Defendants are unclear as to whether the Judge’s ruling reinstates the 30% cap previously in place or simply makes the St. Louis County area on par with all other counties in the state and removes the 12.5% cap specifically for that area in favor of the 20% cap statewide. The ruling prohibits the state from selectively apply sections of the law to St. Louis County only. It also eliminated the statewide requirement for yearly audits by the state auditor’s office.
The prevailing municipalities are very happy with the outcome citing Senate Bill 5 as reckless and without regard for the current law. They also hope this ruling with have some impact on another law being drafted currently proposing to limit income from non-traffic related ordinances.
Backers of the reform are disappointed. Eric Schmitt, the main proponent behind the law, stated:
“This is another example of why so many Missourians have lost faith in government, the justice system and big institutions because they make them feel powerless and used. For years, citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks. These same bureaucrats used the tax money they collection to hire an out-of-state attorney and lobbyists to fight the most significant municipal court reform ever enacted in Missouri.”
State Auditor, Nicole Galloway has indicated that her office is reviewing the ruling and the ongoing initiative that involves more aggressive audits of the municipal courts will continue regardless of what happens with the lawsuit.
Governor Jay Nixon took a more diplomatic approach vowing to work with the Legislature to make the needed changes to the law to make sure Senate Bill 5 can be “fully and fairly enforced.”
Attorney General Chris Koster will likely appeal the ruling.