Judge, Lawyers In MO Municipal Courts Play Many Roles–Is It Fair?

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Lawyers who help run and profit from the St. Louis area's 81 municipal courts often work as traffic attorneys whose success lies in their ability to get a charge amended to a nonmoving violation, a leniency that many courts will afford only to lawyers, as long as the offender is willing to pay a higher fine, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. They also work as city attorneys, paid to represent municipalities in lawsuits and to craft ordinances that feed the municipal revenue stream. Sometimes they do both. These dual, or in some cases triple and quadruple roles–judge in one place; prosecutor or city attorney in another; and private lawyer representing defendants in still another–mean the lawyers regularly appear before each other, switching places in court. On a recent day in Berkeley, 20 defense attorneys scheduled to appear before Judge Jennifer Fisher were fellow municipal prosecutors and judges.

It's a practice that wouldn't fly at the state court level. Critics say it raises questions about how justice is served in these small communities. “If you're in front of a judge or you're talking to the prosecutor and you know two days later you're going to be the judge and that person is going to be in front of you as a defense attorney, that knowledge impacts the negotiations,” said St. Louis University Law Prof. Brendan Roediger, who is part of a legal team behind lawsuits alleging constitutional abuses in municipal courts. The main players in this system insist they treat everyone equally. Lawyers who know the inner workings describe the ultimate good old boys club. Favors are traded behind the scenes between lawyers who frequently appear before one another. The same lawyers are simultaneously charging clients to get the same types of deals.

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