Missouri's top court rejects challenge to Macks Creek enforcement
Updated Aug. 4 with Supreme Court ruling -- The reforms required by the passage of Senate Bill 5 don't start taking effect for another six months. But the municipal reform legislation is already having an impact.
The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday chucked the Missouri Municipal League's challenge to the way limits on municipal revenue were enforced, saying the passage of the reform measure made the League's arguments moot.
The organization filed suit in 2013 over changes made that year to the so-called Macks Creek law, saying they were unconstitutional. The measure stripped municipal courts of their jurisdiction if they failed to comply with the law.
"Whatever else may be said about SB5, there can be no doubt that it alters the landscape of the Macks Creek Law to such an extent that there is no longer any reason to analyze MML's claims and no longer any way to fashion meaningful relief for those claims if they were to prevail," Judge Paul C. Wilson wrote in the unanimous opinion. "If MML wishes to challenge the provisions of SB5, it must initiate a new suit and assert those claims in a new petition."
An attorney for the Municipal Leadue did not immediately return a call for comment.
Tuesday's ruling has no impact on a case filed by the Saint Louis University legal clinic challenging whether the city of Bel-Ridge had the authority to operate a municipal court.
Our original story.
In a case that could have implications for efforts to reform the state's municipal court system, the Missouri Supreme Court is weighing whether a 2013 version of the so-called "Macks Creek" law violates the state Constitution.
The suit filed by the Missouri Municipal League does not challenge the 30 percent cap the current version of the law places on revenue generated by traffic fines and fees. Instead, the League challenged an enforcement mechanism inserted in the law in 2013 -- municipal courts are blocked from hearing traffic cases if the city doesn't comply with the law, including filing financial reports with the state auditor's office, and sending any excess traffic fines revenue to the state.
Attorneys for the Municipal League made four basic arguments:
- The enforcement mechanism violates the state's separation of powers doctrine by improperly limiting the jurisdiction of the municipal courts and the right of the Missouri Supreme Court to regulate the lower courts.
- The mechanism violates the constitutionally protected right to an open court by preventing peoplewho have gotten a traffic ticket from having their case heard in the municipal court.
"They're not coming in and saying, 'We're not going to let these municipalities police these areas any more, or issue any more tickets,'" said Jane Dueker, an attorney for the Municipal League who was an assistant attorney general under Jay Nixon when he was attorney general. "They're saying that once those [tickets] are issued, we're going to stop the court from hearing them."
- The bill that was used to pass the changes to Macks Creek strayed unconstitutionally far away from its original title, which regulated the use of ATVs in municipalities.
- That same bill also did not relate to a single subject, and is therefore in violation of the Missouri Constitution.
"The spotlight shining on municipalities generally, and municipal courts particularly, cannot be ignored," Dueker wrote in her brief. "But political expediency should not trump the orderly and constitutional administration of justice. Citizens and municipalities will pay the price if HB103's vague, unregulated and unconstitutional provisions are enacted." HB103 is the bill used in 2013 to make the changes being challenged.
The judges seemed skeptical of Dueker's arguments over separation of powers and access to courts. Chief Judge Mary Russell asked Dueker how the enforcement mechanism was any different than lawmakers telling courts they can no longer hear certain classes of cases, like worker's compensation. And both Russell and judge Laura Denvir Stith asked whether all traffic cases could be transferred from municipal courts to the circuit court.
They can be transferred, Dueker said, but the Legislature can't force that change.
Supporting Macks Creek
The state argued in its brief that the Municipal League did not even have the right to bring the case, because its individual members don't have any standing to sue on their own. It also pointed out that HB103, which turned into the new Macks Creek law in 2013, was always intended to regulate the use of state highways, and that everything in the final bill had something to do with transportation.
"What this case is really about is control," said Ronald Holliger, the senior counsel for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. "It's about control by municipalities of a judicial branch of government. These municipalities want to control a division of the circuit court. These are huge revenue streams."
Advocates for municipal court reforms also filed a brief in support of the law. They argued that a close reading of Missouri laws and the Constitution shows that municipal courts can't keep any of the money from traffic fines and fees, and therefore the entire municipal court system should be thrown out.
"If we are going to allow 81 municipal courts to exist in St. Louis County, and if those courts are going to serve as revenue generators, then we need some limits on the system, and that limit is the Macks Creek enforcement provision," said Marie DeFer, a student at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
Enforcing Macks Creek
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has suits pending against three cities for failing to comply with the provisions of Macks Creek. He has requested their courts be prevented from hearing traffic cases until they come back into compliance. Separate lawsuits by the SLU legal clinic seeks to shut down the municipal court in Bel-Ridge and have all tickets issued while the court did not have jurisdiction to hear cases thrown out.
Before his death of an apparent suicide, state auditor Tom Schweich had announced that he planned to audit 10 municipal courts to make sure they were complying with the revenue cap. He said he would also examine "statistics on warrants (including data on race and gender), embezzlement, special treatment or corruption, and proper accounting practices." It appears that Schweich had begun just three of those reviews when he died.
The state House heard testimony Wednesday on a measure from state Sen. Eric Schmitt that would reduce the Macks Creek revenue cap even further. Cities that fail to turn over excess revenue would face a reduction in their sales tax revenue by the amount of traffic revenue they keep above that cap, and residents would automatically gain the right to vote on disincorporation.
A ruling by the Supreme Court is not expected before the end of the legislative session in May.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann