June 5, 2020
By Jennifer Tiedemann

The death of George Floyd has kickstarted a growing national conversation on racism in America and led to a clarion call for accountability in law enforcement. As we should have learned from the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one area that’s ripe for reform is America’s city court system, where judicial decisions and heavy-handed police action are driven by money, not by the public good.

In about a dozen states, city court judges are appointed and retained by the mayor and city council, which makes them vulnerable to political pressure from those who appointed them, as well as the police, prosecutors, and other city administrators. One of the places where the city council is responsible for hiring and retaining judges is Ferguson—where Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014.

The Ferguson city court is proof that “the danger of political pressure skewing city court decisions is not an esoteric one,” writes Mark Flatten, National Investigative Journalist for the Goldwater Institute. Flatten looked at the Ferguson example as part of his series of reports on the “long-simmering issue” of “city courts being co-opted by political forces.”  

Flatten writes in his report that in Ferguson, the “judge and his staff, as well as the police chief, were repeatedly urged to take steps to increase revenue to meet budget projections,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that looked into Ferguson’s overall police and court practices and uncovered concerning practices regarding the dispensing of justice. “The police chief did his part by implementing a ticket quota system, whereby police officers’ performance evaluations were tied to the number of citations they issued and the amount of revenue they generated” (emphasis added). This compromise in judicial independence created an incentive for greater police activity, putting justice in jeopardy.

“Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court,” the Justice Department concluded in its report, issued in March 2015. “The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.”

According to the DOJ’s Ferguson report, then, freeing city courts from political influence is therefore necessary to ensure that there is a proper check on illegal police action. So what actions ought to be taken to ensure this independence? Among the reforms that would help drive real change is to fund municipal courts through the state rather than having them funded by convictions. Another would be to make city court judges accountable to voters, so that these judges don’t answer to city officials and can’t be pressured to increase city revenue through convictions. Reform must be based on the idea that municipal courts exist to ensure justice, not to raise money for the city—that is key to creating the accountability in the criminal justice system Americans are now seeking. (You can read more about the Goldwater Institute’s recommendations for city court reform here.)

In a widely read Medium post this past week, former President Obama wrote that “the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.” This is absolutely right: Without clearly defined policy objectives, calls for change have little chance of success, no matter how important the goal. Those seeking real accountability in the wake of Floyd’s death may look to sweeping national change, but a first step in making a meaningful and positive difference might be best found in our city court systems.

Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.

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