The state Supreme Court’s considering a case involving a court reform law governing municipalities in St. Louis County.
In the aftermath of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, it became known that cities in the area were leaning heavily on court fines and fees to finance city services. The state legislature responded with a law – Senate Bill 5 – capping the amount of fines and fees those municipalities could retain from minor traffic violations. It lowered the percentage all communities can apply toward their annual general operating revenue from 30 percent to 20 percent, but further lowered the amount for cities in St. Louis County to 12.5 percent.
The cities sued in court, securing a decision the law was illegally targeting one area – St. Louis County – for special treatment. Representing the state before the high court, attorney Andrew Hirth said the treatment’s appropriate because St. Louis County has an unusually large number of jurisdictions. “You’ve got a county which has lower levels of government, a whole lot of them, which means if you drive from one side of St. Louis County to the other, you’re subject to an awful lot of different jurisdictions” said Hirth. “There’s a very good reason to say ‘Well, we’re going to give a little more of a skeptical eye, and rein that in a little bit more, when there are that many municipalities within close proximity to each other. So I think that’s a rational basis for treating them differently.”
The cities want the justices to preserve the lower court’s ruling which frees them to charge fines as they see fit. Representing the cities before the Supreme Court, attorney David Pittinsky defended the lower bench ruling. He said the law unfairly singled out St. Louis County for its size and form of government. “The statute said ‘A county with a charter form of government and at least 950,000 inhabitants’” said Pittinsky. “So if another county in Missouri is not a charter form of government and doesn’t have 950,000 inhabitants, it can’t be in the class.”
Pittinski pointed out St. Louis County is far larger than any other in the state, further placing it in a special class. He claimed census figures show the next largest county, Jackson at 660,000, would take 15 years to reach parity with St. Louis County.
The cities also want a requirement left in place by the lower bench reversed. It requires them to have accredited police departments without providing a funding source.
Two organizations filed briefs in the case as friends of the court. The American Civil Liberties Union argued the laws provisions that currently limit its application in St. Louis County are constitutional. Better Together made a similar argument.