Investigation raises questions about municipal courts’ openness

St. Louis County municipal courts are supposed to be open, but the reality is that business is mostly conducted at the judge’s bench in such low tones that no one not standing right there can hear what is being said.

That’s among the findings of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation into the operation of the municipal courts in St. Louis County.

Reporters Stephen Deere, Jennifer Mann and Jeremy Kohler found that plea bargains are much more difficult to find information on in municipal courts.

In a Post-Dispatch story published March 15, the reporters wrote:

With no hearing or public discussion, agreements get tucked away into individual case files, apparent only to those who know to look for them. The courts don’t keep a list of amended charges and aren’t required to report these deals to the state.

The sweetest deals, those that wipe out a case altogether, are completely hidden from the public. These are the phone calls and emails that often only happen if you know someone who knows someone. While the courts do report these numbers to the state, that’s all it is — just numbers, with no way of identifying the types of cases or individuals who benefit.

The newspaper could not even get a simple docket, a list of the cases being heard on any given court date, from many of the municipal courts it filed a request with. Many of the courts referred the request to the Regional Justice Information System, which charged $85 to produce each docket, including several one-page documents and, in one case, a completely blank record.

“Ferguson’s court would provide it only if a formal request was made under the state’s Sunshine Law,” the story said. “No courts could provide it immediately, several took longer than a month, and some never responded. Several courts charged upward of $100 to produce the docket.”

Court records are governed by Supreme Court operating rules, which say that they should be presumed to be open and should be provided at a reasonable cost. (Court administrative records are covered by the Sunshine Law.)

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