by Jon Schuessler
St. Louis County has 81 separate municipal courts. Some cities are small. Yet even the tiniest can afford to maintain a court, because the legal system not only pays for itself – it turns a tidy profit.
The system of “justice” in St. Louis has three rungs. At the bottom are the police and clerks who depend upon the system to pay their salaries. In the middle are the mayors, chiefs and city officials who likewise profit from fines.
At the top are the lawyers.
A small group of lawyers form an exclusive club of “elites” that hold multiple positions in different cities – in one city they might be a judge, in another a prosecutor, and in yet another a city attorney. Many also have a private practice as defense lawyers.
These office-collectors put themselves into a position where conflicts of interest are a regular occurrence, and favors are routinely traded between judge/prosecutors and judge/defense attorneys.
An example is the hit-and-run incident in Jennings, where police recorded that Thomas Battreal, Sr., drove into a man in a crosswalk, slowed down, and then drove off. His lawyer was one of the “elites” – Ronald Brockmeyer – as was the prosecutor, Ethan Corlija. When the case came to court, Battreal was charged with “illegal parking” and fined $250 plus court costs.
Such wheeling and dealing pays off for the elites. Brockmeyer made over $1,500 per hour as the prosecutor for Florissant alone.
Meanwhile, the poorer residents in the county cannot afford an attorney at all, much less the get-out-jail-free version. The elites preside over courts that remorselessly suck money from these people, or jail them until someone pays up.
Berkley, for instance, collected $111 of city fines per resident in 2013, issued more tickets than its population (9,000 people vs. 10,452 tickets) and had 2 outstanding arrest warrants per resident. Bel-Ridge collected $450 in city fines per resident, and issued 3 times as many tickets as its population.
The list goes on: Cool Valley had 6 times as many arrest warrants as people and collected $314 per resident; Pine Lawn had 7.3 times as many arrest warrants and collected $576 per resident; and Country Club Hills had a truly ridiculous 26 arrest warrants per resident.
The appalling situation received no media attention, despite being an “open secret for decades”, as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer later admitted.
Then, in 2014, riots broke out in the city of Ferguson.The Aftermath:
Although most of the media focused exclusively on racism and police brutality to sell copy about the Ferguson riots, The Washington Post published an epic 45-page article on the larcenous behavior of St. Louis’ city governments.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch tardily followed the example of The Washington Post, and printed a series of articles exposing the antics of the “elite” lawyer-judges. It published a list of names and offices late in 2015.
Following criticism in the Ferguson report by the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ), Ronald Brockmeyer resigned both his judgeships and his three offices as prosecutor.
Charles Kirksey – also criticized in the DOJ report –resigned all three of his judgeships in April of 2015. A local investigation revealed that he had withdrawn money from a client trust fund to pay personal bills.
In 2015, the General Assembly passed a law, SB 5, that limited a city’s revenue from court fines to 12.5% of its total income in St. Louis County, and 20% outside the county. It was signed by the governor on July 10th, 2015.
Several St. Louis County cities have sued to have the law repealed.
The case is still pending.Back to Part Three
Jon Schuessler is a Volunteer leader in Jefferson County, and the chairman for Missouri Volunteers for Government Reform, a Political Action Committee (PAC) of the Volunteer Movement. Click here to read his bio or contact him.