Laura Denvir Stith, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered the following State of the Judiciary address Wednesday morning, Jan. 28, 2009, during a joint session of the General Assembly in Jefferson City, Mo.
President Kinder, President Pro Tem Shields, Speaker Richard, my fellow Supreme Court judges, Treasurer Zweifel, Auditor Montee, Attorney General Koster, other elected officials and my fellow citizens: I am truly honored to appear before you again to discuss the state of Missouri’s judiciary.
In evaluating the role of the judicial branch in our constitutional partnership, the place I naturally began is the people's law: our constitution, which, in article I, imposes certain requirements on the judiciary. Section 14 mandates “That the courts of justice shall be open to every person ….” Section 10 ensures that every person whose life, liberty or property is threatened receives “due process of law.” Section 2 specifies that all persons are entitled to equal rights and opportunity under the law. If we do not work together to secure these rights for our citizens, then, as the constitution itself states (article I, section 2), our government “fails in its chief design.” These and other overarching constitutional principles have led me to identify four strategic missions of our legal system:
(1) Ensuring equal and affordable access to justice for all our citizens;
(2) Providing a fair, unbiased and impartial forum for resolving disputes;
(3) Effectively and efficiently administering our courts; and
(4) Enhancing the public's trust and confidence in the justice system and, indeed, the whole government.
All of us in the judiciary strive each day to accomplish these missions. But we cannot do it alone. We will succeed only if we continue to collaborate with you, our constitutional partners. Together, we must encourage continued innovation as we face new and different challenges; we must learn to enhance our services while being more efficient; and we always must keep in mind that any path we choose should continue us toward the kind of open, responsive courts the constitution shows our citizens envisioned.
Implementing a strategic vision for
Collaboration has been the foundation of our government, since the drafting of our constitution. The Missouri Constitution was not the work of just legislators – it evolved – and continues to evolve – through the collaboration of officials from all branches of government and ordinary citizens alike, with a healthy respect for tradition combined with an openness to new ideas.
Some of you
will remember that my colleague Mike Wolff helped initiate this process a few
years ago by making
To better address these and other challenges, the courts must recognize that we cannot simply force all modern problems to fit old judicial molds – we must look at the needs of our citizens and businesses today and ensure that the courts evolve to meet them. As a key part of that effort, I have invited those with the most contact with our legal system – lawyers, judges, court staff and others – to join me in using an open-ended “brainstorming” tool to help us identify ways in which we can make Missouri’s courts even better. Their responses have been very helpful and insightful.
But I do
not want to stop there. I want your input as well, for I am confident you will
have additional insights, drawn from your own experience or that of your
constituents, about how our courts can better serve
In the meantime, we will deliver to you this afternoon a pocket-sized brochure with basic facts about the judiciary as well as an electronic document outlining our key legislative issues for 2009. I will spend the remainder of my remarks this morning touching on key aspects of these issues. Together, we can build on the solid foundation we already have and forge an even better justice system for the future. Our citizens deserve nothing less.
Ensuring equal and affordable access to justice
mission of the judiciary is to ensure equal and affordable access to justice
for all Missourians – no matter their color or creed or ability to pay. We can
do no less if we are to fulfill the promise of
work already is being done to advance this mission. In
like these have sparked people to suggest that we implement statewide “veterans
courts” or dockets overseen by judges who understand the unique problems and needs
presented by some former members of the military. Other suggestions involve
ways we can streamline procedural requirements in complex civil cases such as
major labor and business disputes. Along with business leaders throughout our
state, we recognize that the prompt resolution of these cases is essential for
I also am
proud to tell you that we are seeking to make justice more affordable for all
our citizens by expanding the use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing. We
already use videoconferencing in some of our juvenile courts to enable parents
whose children have been required to be placed far away to see their children
and communicate with them on a regular basis. In addition, some courts – such
as those in the
asked a group of knowledgeable judges and clerks to make recommendations – by
the end of the current fiscal year – for the best ways to use this technology.
Their leader will be a former trial judge with nearly two decades of experience
representing all sorts of clients throughout northwest
I am speaking of my newest colleague, Judge Zel Fischer, whose intelligence, experience and enthusiasm already have made Zel – as he much prefers to be called – an excellent addition to the Supreme Court. He is an extremely devoted family man, and his affable and easy-going manner is obvious to anyone who spends time with him. I am certain that you will come to like him; in fact, I don’t know anyone who has met him who doesn’t like him. Judge Fischer – Zel – will you please stand?
Public Defender Crisis as an Aspect of Access to Justice
One critical challenge, however, continues to be our ability to deliver equal and affordable access to justice in criminal matters. One measure of a society’s justice system is how well it handles the worst of citizens who come before it. Well, I hope there are other measures too, because of all states with statewide public defender systems, Missouri ranks dead last in per capita funding of public defenders. This affects not just the defendant whose trial is delayed. It sometimes means that justice is delayed or denied for the victims of crime, who watch in frustration as evidence or witnesses disappear and stress increases.
There is a serious public safety
aspect of the public defender crisis as well. The federal constitution
guarantees defendants both speedy trials and competent legal counsel. The
inadequate number of public defenders, however, puts in question the state’s
ability to meet either of these requirements. In short, if not corrected,
defendants potentially could be set free without going to trial. The United
States Supreme Court has said that it is presumptively prejudicial for a
criminal defendant in state courts to have to wait more than eight months for
trial where the delay was caused by the prosecutor. But, just two weeks ago the
United States Supreme Court heard an appeal suggesting that it is also the
state’s fault if gross underfunding causes public defenders to ask for
continuances. Victims’ advocates have expressed very understandable concern
this could result in vast numbers of criminals being set free because their
public defenders were unable to take them to trial soon enough.
already is being done in
most drastic of volunteer efforts, however, is not nearly enough. That is why
working with you to find creative solutions to remedy the worsening situation
Providing fair, unbiased and impartial forums for resolving legal issues
Citizens in civil and criminal cases require more than just equal and affordable access to our legal system, though. They also expect – and deserve – our courts to be fair, unbiased and impartial forums, for the Missouri Constitution (article I, section 14) promises that a “certain remedy [be] afforded for every injury to person, property or character, and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” Fulfilling this promise also is one of the missions of the Missouri Judiciary.
In our focus on providing an unbiased and impartial forum to resolve disputes, we have found that some types of cases simply do not fit well within a traditional court framework. These cases can be handled better by looking for innovative solutions, such as the drug courts and other specialized “problem-solving” approaches now offered in most of our counties. These specialized dockets make the processing of such cases more efficient and best utilize the expertise of those who work on them – they serve as alternatives to imprisonment for generally non-violent offenders whom the judge believes have a real chance of turning their lives around if they receive serious, court-supervised treatment, oversight and mentoring.
I talked with you last year about
the success of our drug courts and of the
A new and
effective use of the treatment court model involves reintegration dockets,
which reduce recidivism by placing offenders released from prison into
intensive programs where they are taught the skills they need to readjust to
life in their communities. The program requires random
drug tests; regular meetings with a probation officer; frequent support group
and treatment sessions; and maintaining employment. A judge monitors the
participants’ behavior and can send them to jail or back to prison if they fail
to comply. One reintegration success story is that of Larry Goodman,
who, for much of his adult life, did not think he had a drug or alcohol problem
despite frequent arrests while intoxicated. In 2007, instead of being released
directly into the community to make his own way, he entered
approaches are not limited to the criminal field. The courts and local mental
I hope you will have other suggestions for helping our courts fit the kinds of cases brought before them, rather than trying to force unique cases into a one-size-fits-all traditional court structure.
Efficiently administering justice
that our citizens receive an unbiased forum to resolve their disputes dovetails
with the third mission of
Many who have participated in our brainstorming exercise have praised our efforts to move cases more expeditiously. Three years ago, based in part on the Commission on Children’s Justice’s recommendations, we implemented time standards for certain hearings in child abuse and neglect cases. I am proud to announce that, last fall, we honored 25 judicial circuits for conducting at least 95 percent of these hearings within the requisite time frames and another dozen circuits for doing so in 100 percent of their hearings. You should be proud of the judges and staff in all these circuits for this wonderful progress.
technology is another area in which we have worked to make our system meet the
needs of those we serve. Case.net, which provides public case information to
anyone with an Internet connection, is only the tip of the iceberg. We recently
completed our statewide case management system, allowing
For us to continue providing these critical services, however, we need continued legislative commitment to court technology. Most importantly, we need you to reauthorize the $7 filing fee paid by those who file cases. Although it funds one-third of the court system’s technology needs, this fee is one of the lowest in the nation for this purpose, and it is scheduled to sunset this year. But without it, we literally would go back to pencil and paper in some places and could not sustain the kind of information sharing that public safety and efficiency require.
is important to the state’s bottom line, for if we could not maintain our
statewide case management system, we would not be able to continue our efforts
to collect monies owed to the state and her citizens. For example, in the four
years since the judiciary and the legislature worked together to create the
tax-offset and debt-collection programs,
We look forward to working with you to maintain the positive economic impact on the state that court technology has. We also look forward to your ideas for other ways to increase the courts’ efficiency.
Increasing public trust and understanding
I began by emphasizing our roles as constitutional partners. This partnership is established by the Missouri Constitution (article II, section 1), which provides our basic compact with the people: “The powers of government shall be divided into three distinct departments – the legislative, executive and judicial …” and that no persons in one branch “… shall exercise any power properly belonging to either of the others ….”
Over the past few years, those of us in the legal community have been collaborating to explain the checks and balances of these three co-equal yet interdependent branches of government as a part of our fourth mission: enhancing the public’s trust and confidence in their whole government. I firmly believe that as our citizens increase their understanding of the role and workings of the judiciary and the other branches of government, their already high level of confidence in the judicial system, and their level of confidence in all parts of their government, only will improve. This is an important tie that binds us all: a deep-rooted desire to serve the citizens of this great state and to see justice brought to those who need it.
As a part of expanding the public’s understanding of the judicial role, judges and lawyers are volunteering to teach in schools on Constitution Day and in government classes. Just last week, I took part in a citizenship video program that will be shown to thousands of middle- and high-school students in which I explained the concepts underlying our constitutional democracy. We also are collaborating with The Missouri Bar and others to enhance the public’s understanding of the justice system by expanding the judicial performance evaluations that Judge Mike Wolff suggested two years ago and that the Bar instituted last fall to give voters better information about judges up for retention.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate how important it is that
we all continue our joint commitment to a well-run judiciary. Our justice
system is one leg of the three-legged stool that represents the system of
governance our constitution establishes. I never will forget the difficulties
inherent in your role, and I look forward to your input in the coming weeks and
months as we in the courts continue to develop strategic initiatives for an
even better and stronger justice system. And let us all – regardless of the
branch of government in which we serve – be guided by a legal principle
enshrined above the door of the red brick Supreme Court building – “The law: It
has honored us. May we honor it.” The citizens of