It has been just over two years since the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer sparked protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Those riots led to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation and subsequent report that was a sad indictment of the legal system in that city. The City of Ferguson’s policies and practices led directly to the creation of a tinderbox that sparked when Brown was shot.
Municipal courts aren’t often thought of, since they tend to handle lower level offenses such as traffic fines and minor misdemeanors. However, they are the introduction to the court for most people, and likely the only courtroom people will ever see. Therefore, it is essential that the municipal courts across the country are perceived as being fair. It isn’t enough that they follow the law – they must be perceived as being fair and impartial as well.
Georgia’s municipal court judges took note of the DOJ’s Ferguson report, and checked its findings with the policies and procedures of their own courts. The Council of Municipal Court Judges (CMCJ) and Georgia Municipal Association, Inc. (GMA) recently met in St. Simon’s Island and Savannah to discuss ways to prevent some of the problems identified in the DOJ report to ensure that these patterns would not be repeated in Georgia.
Alison Earles and Rusi Patel, Associate General Counsels of the GMA, met with the CMCJ and attended its annual summer conference on St. Simon’s Island in June. At that conference, then CMCJ President Leslie Spornberger Jones taught a class called “Georgia Reflections on Ferguson.”
Reciprocating, municipal court judges Thomas Bobbitt, III of Soperton, GA, and Robert Leitch of Decatur, GA attended the GMA’s annual conference in Savannah. Judge Donald Schaefer, Municipal Court Judge of Johns Creek, served on panels speaking to city attorneys and to elected city officials.
In addition to classes, the GMA sought feedback on a survey to be sent to the state’s municipal court judges. The survey invites judges to identify areas of training for city officials in order for city officials to better understand the role of the municipal court and the legal requirements for all municipal courts.
One of the main findings of the DOJ in Ferguson was an inherent constitutional separation of powers issue. The courts (the judicial branch) were entwined with the executive branch (the police), sharing employees and creating a generalized atmosphere indicating that the courts were there to serve the police. Furthermore, a traffic fine-driven economy created dangerous incentives for prosecution.
Georgia is making sure that there is adequate training in place to ensure this does not occur in its municipal courts. “GMA provides training and services designed to help cities take advantages of economies of scale and sharing best practices. Municipal court judges can identify barriers to compliance that city officials are in a position to address, and can identify many different ways to comply with defendants’ constitutional rights.”
Judge Leslie Spornberger Jones stated, “Every judge in this room has experienced a situation where their city either pressured them, held and appointment over their heads, or in some way tried to focus the court on revenue. Our best judges have always chosen to uphold the law and not give in to such pressure, even if that means losing their position as a judge.” Legislation was passed last year in Georgia that protects Municipal Court Judges from being removed mid-term without just cause. This helps judges feel more comfortable and less pressure from political forces. Judge Jones continued, “City officials should understand that they have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, just like our judges have, and everyone has a duty to ensure that municipal courts of law, where the community can see justice done, not revenue generated.”
On the city government side, Rusi Patel teaches city officials how courts should run independently and ethically. Mr. Patel said it is “fundamental to the separation of powers that municipal governing authorities provide proper staffing and support of the municipal court while not interfering with judicial decisions of the municipal court judge. A municipal court is part of the judicial branch and in order to ensure proper checks and balances in our justice system, judicial decisions must remain with the judge.
While the courts and city governments must remain separated, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t communicate. Judge Bobbit’s and Judge Leitch’s participation in multiple policy discussions about municipal courts, focusing on policies that will help ensure public safety, proper running of independent courts, and best practices at the GMA conference is a great example of what can be achieved through cooperation. Judge Bobbit stated, “I believe that it is very important for judges to attend the GMA meetings and interact with our city officials. It is at these meetings that policy positions are decided; many of which confront our courts. Those officials need our input to fully understand the issues at hand and how we can work together to address them and legislation that will affect our courts and cities in the future.”
The CMCJ in partnership with the Supreme Court Committee on Access, Fairness, Public Trust and Confidence is also having a “Georgia Reflections on Ferguson” summit in December in Macon, GA. Judge Gary E. Jackson of the City of Atlanta, the president of the CMCJ, is committed to continuing the work in Georgia that has already been done to self-examine court policies to ensure not just compliance with a DOJ report, but essential principals of justice. Judge LaTisha Dear-Jackson of Stone Mountain heads up the CMCJ’s Committee on Access and Fairness, which is specifically charged with ensuring, as the name makes clear, that the courts are fair and accessible to the public.
While Georgia’s municipal courts may not be perfect – nothing run by human beings ever is – the efforts made by the CMCJ and the GMA are a true testament to the priority that the municipal courts are making in ensuring that the courts are as fair as it is humanly possible to be.