The Missouri Supreme Court chief justice emphasized judicial independence, criminal justice reform and funding for treatment courts during his 2019 State of the Judiciary Address in Jefferson City on Wednesday.
Chief Justice Zel Fischer, who’s from northwest Missouri’s Tarkio, spoke to a joint session of the Legislature inside the House chamber.
Fischer says he’s pleased with Governor Mike Parson’s (R) comment that he’s not interested in building more prisons. Parson made that statement during this month’s State of the State Address, and the governor received one of the loudest standing ovations from both sides when he said that.
The chief justice tells lawmakers to save our prisons “for those we are afraid of, not just mad at.”
“Over-incarcerating nonviolent offenders, especially drug and alcohol offenders, costs us millions and is not curing the problem. We need to spend public funds where we see proven results,” Fischer says.
Fischer is calling on lawmakers to approve the governor’s proposal to provide $3 million in additional funding to expand treatment court services.
Chief Justice Fischer also says too many Missourians who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level offenses and remain jailed waiting for a court hearing.
Fischer tells lawmakers the court has ordered significant changes to its rules regarding pretrial release.
“We all share a responsibility to protect the public, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that those accused of crime are fairly treated according to the law, and not their pocket book,” says Fischer.
Fischer says that under the new rules, a court could only order a defendant’s pretrial detention if it determines that “no combination of non-monetary and monetary conditions will ensure safety of the community or any person.”
The new rules take effect July 1. The chief justice describes the changes as “extensive and meaningful.”
Fischer is also emphasizing the importance of judicial independence. During his address, Fischer paraphrased U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who says judges do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle.
“They do not caucus in separate rooms. They do not serve one party or interest. They serve one nation. Or, in our instance, one Missouri,” Fischer says.
Fischer tells lawmakers the state’s nonpartisan court plan is the best method of selecting judges for urban and appellate courts and the Missouri Supreme Court. He notes West Virginia’s entire Supreme Court faced impeachment last year, adding that West Virginia has partisan elections.
Fischer also thanks Governor Parson for calling a September special session on treatment courts, and Fischer thanks lawmakers for approving the bill to expand Missouri’s treatment court system to all counties.
Treatment courts include DWI and veterans treatment courts. Fischer says Missouri has veterans treatment courts in about 36 counties, as well as St. Louis and Kansas City.
Fischer also talked about Casenet, which is Missouri’s online court system. He says Missouri lawmakers mandated the development of the system in 1994, and says the $7 fee has not changed in 25 years.
Fischer tells lawmakers that the Casenet system is built on 25-year-old technology and will be unable to receive critical system updates by 2021 without additional funding.
Missouri Supreme Court Judges George Draper III, Paul Wilson, Mary Russell, W. Brent Powell, Patricia Breckenridge and Laura Denvir Stith also attended the State of the Judiciary Address, along with Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe and State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick.
Fischer, who was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court in 2008 by Governor Matt Blunt (R), was born in Iowa and raised in Watson, Missouri. That’s near Tarkio.
He’s serving a two-year term as chief justice, through June.