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Municipal court's future discussed by City Council

Municipal court's future discussed by City Council

September 20th, 2017 by David Wilson in Local News

The large room on the second floor of the California City Hall, generally known as the Council Chamber, is actually set up as a courtroom. Municipal Court actions are held in this room. (Democrat photo / David A. Wilson)

The future of the California Municipal Court was discussed by the Board of Aldermen at its regular monthly meeting Sept. 2.

The issue came up because the Missouri Supreme Court ruled on several changes, which need to be made in the operation of municipal courts. The court took up the matter of municipal courts, because of the recommendation of the Ferguson Commission appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon, to study ways to heal rifts in the community after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Aug. 9, 2014. After reviewing complaints about the operations of municipal courts in the St. Louis area, the court ordered the changes.

The ruling, made in September of last year, was supposed to go into effect July 1. Enforcement has been delayed, apparently because of the large number of small cities, which have been unable to decide how to handle the required changes.

Even though the municipal courts are a division of the state court system, and thus under the oversight of the Supreme Court, they are a creation of the cities in which they are held. The Supreme Court has set "minimum operating standards for municipal courts." In order for a municipal court to operate, every Municipal Judge, Substitute Judge, or Provisional Judge shall, by Jan. 1 and July 1 of each year, certify to the Presiding Circuit Judge of the County of the compliance with the Minimum Operating Standards.

Some of the changes to insure the separation of the judicial branch, executive and legislative branches of small cities are proving to be a major difficulty for many communities.

Jamestown and Clarksburg decided early on to send their municipal cases to the Associate Circuit Court for resolution. Since Clarksburg does not currently have a city police officer, this has not affected the Associate Court.

Tipton has elected to keep it's municipal court and will seek certification of it's court. That city has about 150 cases each year.

The California aldermen are in the process of deciding whether to continue operating a municipal court. This would require a court clerk to be on duty at least 30 hours each week. The municipal court clerk can't do any work, which could be considered a conflict of interest, whether actual, or apparent.

For California, this means that the city police clerk could no longer serve as municipal court clerk. The California Municipal Court also would have to pursue court automation to allow payments to be made online, and to make free online access available for information about pending cases, outstanding warrants and scheduled dockets.

Another requirement is not a problem for the city of California. The court must meet in a space that's large enough to accommodate the public. The city of California already has met that requirement, since the room generally known as the Council Chamber is actually set up as a courtroom.

The alternative to meeting the requirements is for all of the California municipal cases to go before the Associate Circuit Court. The addition of California's average of 400 municipal cases each year would most likely require adding additional sessions of the Moniteau County Associate Circuit Court.

Moniteau County has only a single courtroom. The 2017 Moniteau County Court schedule, with it's Arraignment Days, Law Days, Jury weeks, Juvenile and Drug Courts is already tight. There are three Circuit Judges, one Associate Circuit Judge and a retired judge seeking time in the courtroom to hear certain cases. Court cases could be delayed longer than they are now.

Elimination of the city of California Municipal Court would also require some rewriting of many, if not most, of the city ordinances, in order to assure that they meet the Associate Circuit Court standards for sentences, fines and court costs.

An additional factor, which is at least a part of Tipton's effort to keep its municipal court system, is the extra burden placed on the municipality to have it's police officers in court for the municipal cases. This would be less of a problem for California, being also the county seat.

The Board of Aldermen will discuss this matter at the October council meeting. The next council meeting at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at the California City Hall and/or contact their representatives on the Board of Aldermen or the City Attorney.

The aldermen and their telephone numbers are: Alderman Joe Coffelt, Ward 1, 573-796-3275; Alderman Ron Baker, Ward 1, 573-796-3714; Alderman Darryl Elliott, Ward 2, 573-796-2868; Alderman Bryan Lawson, Ward 2, 573-796-2305; Alderwoman Resa Dudley, Ward 3, 573-796-6333; Alderman Lanny Ash, Ward 3, 573-796-2049. City Attorney Ann Perry, 573-796-2113.