Chief justice pushes back at governor’s criticism of state’s court system
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge urged state lawmakers not to turn their desire to change the state’s tort laws into a “condemnation of our judicial system.”
Breckenridge, whose two-year term as the head of the Missouri Supreme Court ends June 30, delivered the state of the judiciary address on Tuesday to a joint session of the Missouri House and Senate in Jefferson City. Her speech came just a few weeks into a legislative session with a historic level of Republican influence: For the first time, Republicans hold the governor’s office and supermajorities in both legislative chambers.
Just one week before, Gov. Eric Greitens used his State of the State speech to decry trial lawyers for having “picked our people’s pockets” and called the judicial system “broken.” Breckenridge, however, reminded lawmakers that just 5 percent of civil cases, and just 1 percent of the overall caseload, involve tort claims.
“Do not view these calls for action as a condemnation of our judicial system,” she said.
Throughout her speech, Breckenridge emphasized the common goals shared by judges and lawmakers: To have a court system that is fair to all and is the best it can be. Breckenridge made sure to point out her own Republican roots, noting that she was named to the Vernon County trial bench by Gov. Kit Bond, to the appellate court by Gov. John Ashcroft and to the Supreme Court by Gov. Matt Blunt.
“It has been my privilege to serve with judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors and to work to decide cases according to the law,” she said.
She also joked about her recent role in swearing in Greitens and other statewide office holders on Jan. 9, saying that some commenters “focus on how different we are.”
“One tweet even questioned the legitimacy of the oaths because of those differences,” she said. “Apparently, I correctly said ‘Missourah,’ and you said ‘Missouri.’”
The annual state of the judiciary address often serves as a way for the court system to stress its budget priorities. Breckenridge, saying Missouri court employees are the lowest paid in the nation, urged the legislature to find a way to pay “21st century wages for 21st century work.”
She outlined recent changes to the state’s municipal court system and its juvenile justice system. The next task, she said, is keeping pretrial detainees out of local jails where possible. To that end, a Supreme Court task force will examine pretrial incarceration practices and make recommendations for reform.
Keeping detainees in jail unnecessarily, Breckenridge said, costs local communities money and sometimes forces detainees’ children to be brought into state care.
“After only three days in jail, the likelihood that an individual will commit future crimes also increases,” she said,
Breckenridge also spoke about the role of technology in the court system. As of 2016, she said, Missouri was the first state to have e-filing in all its courts of record.
Breckenridge said the court would like to allow the public to have remote access to those records, a privilege Missouri attorneys already enjoy. But, she said, “expansion can be done only if the security and reliability of the court’s essential operations can be guaranteed.” She said that expansion will require more resources, possibly funded by subscription fees or pay-per-view charges.
She also said lawmakers should re-examine the statutes that govern which records can be made public, given the “unique concerns arising from online access.”
Civil rights groups sue over alleged abuse at youth prison
Civil rights groups sued the state of Wisconsin seeking improvements at a youth prison because guards there are still abusing children despite state and federal investigations, an attorney said Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union along with the Juvenile Law Center filed a federal lawsuit Monday asking a judge to limit solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and the use of pepper spray at the Irma facility. State investigators spent all of 2015 probing allegations of widespread abuse at the facility. The FBI has since taken over the probe.
A number of state prison officials have resigned or retired in the midst of the investigations. But no one has been charged and the FBI has said nothing about the investigation’s progress.
ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis said that his group had hoped the investigations would prompt changes at the prison. But he said guards continue to violate inmates’ constitutional rights by locking them up in solitary confinement, chaining them to desks and pepper spraying them for minor infractions, prompting the ACLU lawsuit. During a visit to the prison in October, Dupuis said, he saw a boy get pepper sprayed and dragged off because he wouldn’t remove his shoes.
“Usually when ACLU shows up at a prison, (guards are) on their best behavior,” Dupuis said. “We were shocked by what we heard and saw for ourselves. If I had any reason to believe something was coming in the investigations, we may have held off.”
FBI spokesman Leonard Peace declined to comment, saying the investigation was ongoing. State Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook declined comment as well.
The ACLU and the law center filed the lawsuit on behalf of three children currently held at the prison and one child who was held there before he was moved to a mental health facility.
The filing alleges on any day up to 20 percent of the prison’s population is held in solitary confinement in tiny, unfurnished cells. They receive only an hour of education instead of the four or five they would normally get and are chained to their desks or shackled, the lawsuit alleges. Guards needlessly pepper spray inmates for minor, nonviolent infractions, sometimes using a spray meant to stop bears, the lawsuit added.
The practices are unconstitutionally excessive and cruel, the lawsuit said. The filing asks a judge to allow solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray only in rare cases to avoid serious physical harm.
Attorney General Brad Schimel declined to defend the state in the lawsuit Tuesday because the Department of Justice ran the state’s portion of the investigation, creating a conflict, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said. That means Gov. Scott Walker’s administration will need to hire private attorneys.
Twenty-nine states have prohibited solitary confinement as punishment for juveniles, according to the pro bono law firm Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. Wisconsin is one of 15 states that limit the time a juvenile spends in solitary confinement; Wisconsin’s maximum is 60 days. Seven states have no limit on solitary confinement or allow indefinite extensions, according to the center.
Meth planted on suspects leads to expungement
An Iowa man who spent 32 days in jail on drug charges was exonerated Monday after authorities acknowledged his conviction was based on evidence planted by Des Moines police officers.
Polk County Judge Gregory Brandt vacated the conviction of Kyle Jacob Weldon and issued an order exonerating him in connection with the 2015 case.
The exoneration is the first connected to two Des Moines officers who resigned last month after they were accused of planting drug evidence on at least one suspect. The Des Moines Police Department announced then that it would review hundreds of cases tied to the officers, Joshua Judge and Tyson Teut, during their three years on the force. The former officers have not been charged with a crime.
Weldon was jailed after he was arrested in Des Moines on Jan. 1, 2015 on a charge of possessing methamphetamine. A criminal complaint alleged that Weldon, then 21, had a small, clear container containing a “rocklike substance” in his front pants’ pocket that later tested positive to being meth. Teut signed the complaint.
After spending 32 days in jail, Weldon pleaded guilty a month later to the charge, which was elevated to an aggravated misdemeanor due to a prior conviction. Brandt sentenced him to 31 days in jail but gave him credit for time served. He also fined Weldon $625 plus surcharges and revoked his driver’s license for 180 days. The county later obtained an order to collect $1,875 from Weldon for the costs of his jail stay.
Brandt’s order on Monday threw out all the costs that he owed and ordered his conviction to be expunged from all state and federal criminal information system records.
It isn’t clear how authorities learned that the case against Weldon was tainted. The Polk County Attorney’s Office last week filed a motion to vacate the conviction, saying only that it was “based on improperly obtained evidence and misconduct by law enforcement.”
The Wrongful Conviction Division of the State Public Defender’s Office, which joined the motion to vacate, said that officers planted the methamphetamine evidence. The exoneration is the first for the division, which was formed last year to help investigate cases where inmates are possibly innocent.
“We created the Wrongful Conviction Division in order to correct injustices like this case presents. It is never acceptable to plant evidence on a person, ever,” Public Defender Adam Gregg said.
The division’s director, Erica Nichols Cook, said that there are many “more questions” about the conduct of the officers, including whether they engaged in misconduct in any other case. She pledged to work with police or defendants to investigate other cases as necessary.
Museum declared rightful owner of Elvis’ guitar
A federal judge ruled Monday that a South Dakota museum is the legal owner of a guitar played by Elvis Presley.
The Martin D-35 guitar has been on display at the National Music Museum in Vermillion since 2013. It had been donated by collector and musician Robert Johnson (not the legendary blues artist). But months later, Tennessee-based collector Larry Moss contacted the museum saying he was the rightful owner and the donor was not in a position to give away the guitar.
The National Music Museum asked a judge in July 2014 to declare it the legal owner of the guitar.
A judge ruled Monday that Moss never owned the title, never possessed the guitar and never paid for it, and didn’t take legal action during his three-year wait for the instrument. The museum received the guitar’s title in 2013 and is the legal owner, the court found.
Presley played the guitar during his 1977 tour and gave it to a fan in St. Petersburg, Florida, when it was damaged. Presley died six months later.
“We are elated to receive this judgment on the guitar,” National Music Museum Director Cleveland Johnson said in a statement. “We’re thrilled that our passionate commitment to it will ensure that it stays at the NMM for the enjoyment of our future visitors. We are the most suited to the guitar’s safeguarding and physical preservation. It’s in the best hands.”