For some time now, the lawyers of ArchCity Defenders and the Saint Louis University Legal Clinic have represented indigent clients in the municipal courts of St. Louis County on a pro bono basis. On March 31, 2014, we wrote a letter to Judge Maura B. McShane, the Presiding Judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court, advising Judge McShane about the general practice we have observed in many of the Municipal Courts in St. Louis County to close courtrooms to any person who is not named on the docket or a counsel of record. This practice effectively denies both the general public and the press access to the Municipal Courts of St. Louis County.
As Presiding Judge, Judge McShane has general administrative authority over these Municipal Courts. Today, less than three months after we notified Judge McShane of these unconstitutional practices, Judge McShane has written a letter and a proposed municipal court operating rule on access to the courts, which has been sent to all of the Municipal Judges and City Attorneys in St. Louis County. These documents have the potential to eliminate unconstitutional practices and to open the Municipal Courts of St. Louis County to the press and the public.
We wish to express our gratitude to Judge McShane for acting expeditiously to address this very serious problem. We also wish to thank attorney and Municipal Judge Frank Vatterott and all those who worked with him to assist Judge McShane in addressing this problem. We intend to monitor compliance with Judge McShane’s letter and proposed order and report back to her with respect to both successes and any problems we observe in the implementation of the Judge’s communications to the municipal divisions.
This opening of the Municipal Courts to the press and the public represents an essential first step towards more significant reform. For most Missourians, their only contact with the Courts is in the Municipal Division where traffic tickets are routinely resolved through the payment of fines.
The attorneys of ArchCity Defenders and the SLU Legal Clinic look forward to a continuing dialogue with the Chief Judge of St. Louis County and the committee of municipal judges and city attorneys to ensure that all operations of the municipal courts meet the demands of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions. Our goal is to ensure that due process is granted all persons in municipal court, including the guarantee of defendants’ right to counsel, and ensuring that indigent persons are not incarcerated for inability to pay fines.