State of the Judiciary, Jefferson City, January 2016
27 January 2016
chief justice delivers 2016 State of the Judiciary address
Breckenridge, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri,
the following State of the Judiciary address Wednesday morning, January 27,
a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly in Jefferson City, Mo.
Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Kinder, Speaker
Richardson, President Pro Tem Richard, members of the General Assembly, the
executive branch, and the judiciary. It is a privilege to be with you to examine
how we can continue our tradition of collaboration and innovation in improving
I am proud to be a lifelong Missourian. I was born and
raised in Nevada, in Vernon County. I am a product of the public schools of
this state, but it almost wasn’t so. I began college at the University of
Arkansas. During the summer after my freshman year, the young man I was dating
convinced me to transfer to the University of Missouri. After I had
transferred, he commented that, even if the relationship did not last, at least
I would get a better education. I ultimately earned MU degrees in agricultural
economics and law. And the young man who convinced me to return to Missouri?
His name is Bryan, and we will celebrate our 40th anniversary in May. Bryan,
will you please stand?
I am thankful for the values taught to me by my parents –
my father, Don Russell, a small-town lawyer with a general practice, and my
mother, Barbara Reed, a retired elementary teacher from Springfield. Dad died
two years ago, but my mother and my dear aunt, Judy Wood, are here with me
today. Thank you, Mom – you are a wonderful mother and role model.
Last week, I began my 35th year as a Missouri judge. I
served nine years as a trial judge, 17 on the court of appeals and am in my ninth
year on the Supreme Court. When I was appointed by Governor Bond to be the associate
circuit judge of Vernon County, I was 28 years old – only four years out of law
school. I should have been intimidated under those circumstances, but I wasn’t.
Some – many, in fact – might say that I didn’t know enough to be afraid. But
the truth is, as young and inexperienced as I was, I believed I could be a good
judge because I cared about the people of Vernon County who brought their
problems to court and about the law.
When I joined the judicial system, I found it was filled
with principled people who also cared. I was supported and taught by a host of
court clerks, attorneys and judges who helped me by sharing their experiences
and knowledge. I learned from everyone – even criminal defendants!
Criminal defendants taught me the importance of respect
in our court system. I learned when people who appear in court are treated with
respect, they, in turn, treat the judge and the court with respect. Experience
proved, when defendants understand their rights, the criminal charges against
them, and court procedures, they more readily accept even harsh sentences because
they believe the process is fair.
Due process and the rule of law make this country unique.
Our judicial system is a coequal branch of government where citizens go to peaceably
resolve their disputes and to protect their rights. We only have to turn on the
television to see the stark contrast with other parts of the world.
Like the legislative and executive branches, courts are
accountable to the will of the people – but in a different way. Those branches
are designed to be responsive to the current interests and needs of the voters,
but courts are held accountable to the will of the people as expressed in the
constitution and laws enacted by you and by past members of this body.
Missouri citizens must have faith and trust – that in our
courts they will be treated respectfully and fairly and that their cases will
be decided impartially according to the law.
Missourians come to court for many reasons – because they
have been charged with speeding or armed robbery, their loved one’s estate
needs to be probated, they can’t agree on child support or child custody, or
they are business owners trying to get compensated for the products they have
sold. To the people involved, their cases are the most important thing in their
lives. They remind us that the judicial system’s purpose is the fair and
impartial resolution of every case.
My colleagues – the judges of the Supreme Court and the
other judges and commissioners in Missouri’s judicial system – work daily to
properly administer justice in courtrooms all around the state. Courts clerks,
juvenile officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges all must respect the law and strive to
fulfill the courts’ purposes and responsibilities. Some dedicated court staff,
judges, and attorneys from our state are with us today. Would you please stand
to be recognized?
But as we learned, there are courts in our state that
were not true to our system of justice. After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson
and the resulting Department of Justice report, the municipal divisions in St.
Louis County were thrust into the national spotlight. This focused attention on
all our municipal divisions.
When constitutional changes restructured the Missouri
judicial system in 1979, freestanding municipal courts became divisions of the
circuit court, but they were not fully integrated into the state system. Instead,
the law left the selection of judges and staff to the municipalities, which may
have caused some court personnel to promote the interests of their municipality
over the interests of justice.
The constitution places the municipal divisions under the
supervision of the circuit courts. Ultimately, the supervision of all courts
rests with the Supreme Court. The issues of the St. Louis County municipal
divisions have caused the Supreme Court to reexamine the performance of those
Municipal courts are, in fact, part of our Missouri
circuit courts and as the most frequently used division of our courts they may
be the only kind of court most Missourians encounter. Last year, more than 1.4
million municipal cases were disposed – twice as many cases as in all other
The legislature has taken action in response to the problems
demonstrated by events in Ferguson, and I know you are considering additional
changes to the law during this session.
The Supreme Court recognizes that the vast majority of
our municipal divisions function as they should, but we are committed to
restoring trust in all our municipal
divisions, and changes have been made:
There is improved access to information and a uniform
fine schedule that eliminates the exorbitant and unauthorized fines and costs
assessed in some cities;
St. Louis County municipal divisions are required to be
open to all the public;
Thousands of warrants have been recalled and cancelled;
The Court amended our rules to require municipal judges
to consider an indigent defendant’s ability to pay any fine and costs imposed.
Despite progress, more remains to be done. The Supreme
Court appointed a municipal work group, which has gathered and studied
information to identify the most important findings and recommendations for
action. We look forward to its report, which is expected to be filed by March 1.
Our municipal divisions are not the only portions of our
judicial system that have received recent attention. The Department of Justice
released a report last July about the St. Louis County juvenile division. This
report raised concerns, including racial disparity in the disposition of cases;
insufficient legal representation for juvenile offenders; and questions about the
design of our juvenile system.
It might surprise you to know that juvenile courts were
our first treatment courts. Created by you 50 years ago, our juvenile system is
designed not to be an adversarial
system where the parties compete to be winners, but instead, a system where everyone,
including the juvenile officer, has one goal – to preserve and promote each
child’s welfare. Because when the child wins, we all win.
This non-adversarial system has produced good outcomes for
Missouri children. And we know the judges and juvenile staff across the state,
including St. Louis County, continue to be dedicated to the care and protection
of Missouri’s children.
But every system
can be improved. So we are giving thoughtful consideration to the DOJ’s
criticisms, as well as to appropriate solutions. In fact, the concerns have
already led to one change in our juvenile structure. The Supreme Court adopted
a rule that separates the responsibility of the judge who supervises juvenile court
personnel from the responsibility of adjudicating juvenile cases.
The DOJ reports claimed there is racial disparity in the
handling of cases. Let me be clear – we are committed to ensuring every individual in every case in our system of justice is treated with respect and every case is adjudicated fairly and
impartially under the law. Even a perception that justice is contingent on the
color of one’s skin or the part of the state one comes from should concern us all, no matter who we are or where we live.
In this vein, the Court is committed to identifying and
addressing bias. In October, the Supreme Court established a Commission on
Racial and Ethnic Fairness to study the judicial system and the legal
profession. The commission is made up of more than 50 attorneys, judges and
others representing diverse experiences and viewpoints from across the state.
We expect the commission to examine current practices and
make recommendations to help assure fairness, impartiality, equal access and
full participation for racial and ethnic minorities in the judicial process and
in the practice of law. We look forward to seeing the recommendations for
The Supreme Court also realizes it is critical for those
of us who sit in judgment of others to be aware of any bias, implicit or
otherwise, that might unknowingly affect our decisions. To that end, judges of
Missouri’s court system will receive implicit bias training as part of this year’s
judicial education programs.
These are current challenges, but we have a proud history
of meeting challenges head-on and finding successful solutions.
Many years ago, another challenge was technology. With
your support, we met that challenge and embraced technology as part of how
courts must do business in the 21st century. Missouri has become a national
leader in automated case management and, by June, every judicial circuit will
have electronic filing of case documents.
Our innovative Case.net system allows the public to access
information in 19 million court cases, and the public does make use of that
access! By the end of last year,
Case.net averaged 5 million hits per day.
Currently, public access to the actual documents in case
files is available only at computer terminals located in our courthouses. But
in this computer age, the public and the media have requested greater access. In
response, we are working to strike a balance that economically, technically,
and legally makes more case information available to the public.
We already are testing an enhancement to Case.net. This feature
– called “Track This Case” – allows parties and the public to be notified
electronically of activity in a particular case. The pilot began without
fanfare approximately two months ago and, already, Case.net users are tracking 13,000
cases. We will continue to test this program until the end of this year.
Innovations like this are possible because of our best
asset – our people. The expansion of technology has changed the
responsibilities and skill sets of our employees, and we must have a workforce
ready to meet the demands of 21st century Missourians. Without such employees,
we cannot take full advantage of all technology has to offer.
Our technological innovations also are invaluable in
producing data that we use to serve the citizens of Missouri.
For example, by analyzing data from Missouri and around
the country, we have learned that unresolved trauma from abuse and neglect
makes a child significantly more likely to commit delinquent acts … and that a delinquent
child has a considerably higher risk of ending up in prison. The earlier the
trauma is identified and treated, the less likely “acting out” progresses to
the commission of a crime.
This information has guided efforts to improve the
outcomes of children in Missouri. The courts, in collaboration with the Department
of Social Services and the Department of Mental Health, have been piloting
multiple programs like Fostering Court Improvement, the Juvenile Detention
Alternatives Initiative and the Crossover Youth model. These programs improve
safety and permanency outcomes for children in foster care, reduce detention of
children, and prevent children from crossing over from the child welfare system
into the juvenile justice system.
Kids-at-risk is an issue deeply personal to me. When I
was on the court of appeals, I volunteered to mentor at Operation Breakthrough,
an inner-city day care. Little did I know that volunteering would lead to an 18-year
relationship with four sisters. I learned firsthand from “my girls” the impact of
having a mother in prison and a dad whose energy was spent just trying to provide.
They continue to be a big part of my life:
Denise, now a hardworking mother with a full-time job; Danisha, now in
college; and Mae, also a college student, who cannot be here today because
being introduced during the state of the judiciary apparently does not
constitute an excused absence! I am proud to introduce Denise and Danisha to
you today, along with another dedicated mentor, Penni Johnson. I wish Deitra –
the fourth sister – were with us, but tragically she’s made some bad choices
and is currently incarcerated.
I greatly appreciate the work of legislators who are also
passionate about protecting the children of Missouri. Your joint committee on
child abuse and neglect, currently led by Representative Bill Lant and Senator
Bob Dixon, is a wonderful example of how – when we work together – we can make a difference in the lives of
Another example of successful collaboration between us is
our treatment court model. Missouri is a national leader in treatment courts. As
you know, our adult, juvenile and family drug courts change the trajectory of
lives from addiction and crime to being productive citizens, while saving money
by reducing the prison population. Working together, we expanded the drug court
model to DWI courts, mental health courts and veterans courts. If you have not
attended a treatment court graduation, I encourage you to do so. But bring your
hanky. The life experiences of the graduates are moving.
Let me tell you about Patricia Sams. She is a
generational alcoholic from Stone County who assumed the cycle of drinking and
incarceration was her destiny. Despite having spent nearly four years incarcerated,
she continued to drink and drive and once again found herself in front of a judge
charged with DWI – her eighth. But this time it was different …. This time, Judge
Alan Blankenship offered her the opportunity to be one of the first
participants in the new Stone County DWI court. She went through rehab, learned
how to stop her cycle of addiction, and has not had a drink since April 2010. Patricia
became Stone County’s first DWI graduate, and now is part of its treatment
court team. Patricia, will you and Judge Blankenship please rise and be
recognized for your achievements?
Patricia’s story is just one of many. Missouri has more
than 16,000 treatment court graduates and more than 4,000 current participants.
But this is not the end of the story. We have more to
do. We know treatment courts work, but they aren’t available to everyone who could
benefit from them.
I am pleased to announce today that, once again, we are
collaborating. Speaker Richardson has asked the Supreme Court to work with him
and other members of this chamber to identify best practices and explore
expanding the availability of treatment courts. Together, we can change more lives in Missouri.
Although there may be challenges in some areas of the
court system, we can be proud of the outstanding work that is done in the vast
majority of our Missouri courts.
We should be especially proud of the level of cooperation
and communication between the legislature and the judiciary. Our work together in
the areas of treatment and juvenile courts and technology should be a standard
for our interactions every day. Let’s continue to make our Missouri courts even better.