Financial pressures on courts have also created troubling conflicts for judges, manifested most visibly this cycle in Ferguson, Missouri.

In March 2015, seven months after a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report concluding that Ferguson’s municipal court staff was “keenly aware” that the city considered the municipal court’s “primary purpose” to be “revenue generation.” 1 Catalyzed by Brown’s death—along with a grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who shot him—the report revealed that the Ferguson city council pressured the municipal court system to increase revenue, applauding it as it did. 2

The report highlighted the role of Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, who was first appointed as a municipal court judge in 2003 and was reappointed every two years thereafter. One city council member dissented from Brockmeyer’s reappointment in 2012, contending that Brockmeyer “does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict.” 3 Ferguson’s city manager, John Shaw, responded, “It goes without saying the city cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our courts, nor experience any decrease in our fines and forfeitures.” 4 Shaw urged that Brockmeyer be reappointed. 5

Both Shaw and Brockmeyer resigned in the wake of the DOJ report. 6 Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, urged city officials nationwide to see how their own court systems may need reform. “Ferguson is one dot in the state, and there are many municipalities in the region engaged in the same practices a mile away,” she told The New York Times. 7 “The Ferguson report really does highlight some issues that jurisdictions around the country are plagued with,” she added. 8

Notes:

  1. United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department 14 (2015), available at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf.
  2. In responding to emails from Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson relating increases in court revenue, Ferguson City Manager John Shaw applauded the Chief’s efforts to increase revenue as “Wonderful” and “Awesome!” and congratulated the police department and court staff on their “great work.” Id. at 13.
  3. Id. at 15.
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. Judge Brockmeyer resigned once the DOJ report was released, claiming the allegations in the report were untrue but “not worth fighting.” Jennifer S. Mann, Missouri Supreme Court Takes Over Cases in Ferguson, Judge Resigns, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Mar. 9, 2015), http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/missouri-supreme-court-takes-over-cases-in-ferguson-judge-resigns/article_7442c873-a1a1-581f-b4b4-20f93972d91e.html.
  7. Campbell Robertson, Shaila Dewan, and Matt Apuzzo, Ferguson Became Symbol, but Bias Knows No Border, N.Y. Times (Mar. 7, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/us/ferguson-became-symbol-but-bias-knows-no-border.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.
  8. See id.