Ferguson "Debtors' Prison" Judge Resigns as State Supreme Court Takes Reins
All municipal cases to be transferred to county court as reforms begin after DOJ report
A Ferguson, Missouri judge who helped run the city's modern-day "debtors' prison" justice system resigned Monday night as the Missouri Supreme Court ordered all the city's cases to be transferred to the St. Louis County circuit court.
Judge Ronald Brockmeyer announced his resignation as municipal court judge and as prosecutor in neighboring Dellwood a week after the Justice Department published its scathing investigation on systemic racism within the Ferguson Police Department and the excessive ticketing and fining of Ferguson residents by the city's courts.
In a news release Monday, the Missouri Supreme Court said it hoped its intervention, taken under Article 5 of the state constitution, would "help restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division."
Brockmeyer was criticized in the Justice Department report for bringing in millions through "creative" fines and fees and unjustly jailing traffic defendants, while clearing similar tickets for himself and friends. He also reportedly owed $170,000 in unpaid taxes.
That 102-page report details an unnamed Ferguson City Council member's argument against reappointing Brockmeyer during a previous election season, saying that another judge would help cases be "handled properly and fairly."
The state supreme court's ruling also assigned Judge Roy L. Richter of the Missouri Court of Appeals to the St. Louis County circuit court, where Ferguson cases will now be heard, to "bring a fresh, disinterested perspective" to the system, said state Chief Justice Mary R. Russell. Richter, a St. Louis native, is "able and willing to implement needed reforms," Russell added.
Melissa Sanders, an activist with the youth-focused Ferguson action group Lost Voices, told STL Today that the decision is "big."
"I'm elated—for now," she said, adding the caveat, "they may be just pacifying us."
Referring to the Justice Department's recommended changes to the law enforcement systems throughout Missouri, Russell also stated Monday, "Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the Court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis."
Brockmeyer's resignation follows two police officers quitting the force and one court clerk being fired over findings in the report, including racist emails sent by the city employees.
"Courts are a vital part of our democracy, and our court system is built on the trust of the citizens it serves," said Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in response to the move. "Today’s strong and appropriate actions by the Missouri Supreme Court are a solid step forward."
Thomas Harvey, executive director of Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit law firm which helped launch two lawsuits against Ferguson and nearby Jennings for their excessive fining schemes, noted to KSDK that Brockmeyer is only one factor in a system that needs large-scale reform.
"Make these professional courts, make them full time courts, have the cases heard there," Harvey said. "Reduce the number of places that poor people have to go to resolve these legal matters and let's restore some sanity to the region in terms of the way we handle the municipal courts."