The State of the Judiciary

The State of the Judiciary address concluded this year’s ritual pomp and circumstance. I’m not into canned speeches. Who is?  You knew Gov. Nixon would sprinkle his speeches with alliteration and some folksy “you betchas” punctuated with a grin and a fist pump.  Speaker Richardson is more inclined to paint a picture of some larger purpose.

Among these annual speeches, the Chief Justice’s is the most difficult. A judge must avoid politics and the appearance of taking a side in any political issue of the day. An appellate judge’s duty is answer the questions of law before them – and to apply the facts of a case to the law. It is not to proselytize or philosophize. And yet, our state’s Chief Justice must stand before a group of politicians every January to give a speech that avoids political issues.

Its an unnatural role for any judge. But, in an age with a Tweeter-in-chief, 15-minute news cycles, and fact-free politics, I believe it is important for judges to provide the public and legislators with a human face, an example of professionalism, and an update on the branch of government that has more impact on the day-to-day lives of the persons with whom it interacts than the other two.

Chief Justice Zel Fischer drew the task this year. He’s a scholar and a throwback. Justice Fischer practiced law in a small town in northwestern Missouri and then served as an associate circuit court judge. In 2008, Gov. Matt Blunt appointed him to the Supreme Court. He has worked in our legal system from the smallest and most mundane of disputes to the biggest and most complicated, serving, first, his clients, and then, our state, with wit, unadorned language, and common sense logic.

On a personal level, Chief Justice Fischer could win any popularity contest. You’d enjoy his stories and conversation. He is comfortable in any setting – smart, funny and a self-taught guitarist who very likely knows more about country and rock music than anyone you know. You can see Justice Fischer walking on High Street many early mornings with Cole County’s own Justice Paul Wilson.

And yet, for all these qualities, a judge’s speech to a bunch of politicians is still a tall task. If you can’t talk about politics to politicians, what can you talk about? There are usually some stats to show the efficiency of Missouri’s courts. And this year was no different. Missouri was ranked third in the world for the best use of technology in court services – behind only Arizona and Dubai.  And there’s always talk about the general practice of law. Justice Fischer championed our Supreme Court’s effort with the “uniform bar examination” – a process that makes it easier for law students to become licensed in multiple states. In 2010, Missouri was the first state in the nation to join the process.

Usually, they discuss the basic operation of our judicial system and their work to ensure fairness and equal access to justice for all citizens. Justice Fischer’s best applause line came this week came when he referenced efforts to reform bail practices in criminal cases. “It seems obvious and important,” Justice Fischer said, “that before a trial is held and guilt or innocence is determined – we reserve our jail space for those who pose the most danger to the community or risk of fleeing the jurisdiction, and not those who simply may be too poor to post bail.”

Finally, Justice Fischer described how treatment courts can be used to fight opioid addiction. In 2015 and 2016, drug overdoses killed 2,500 Missourians. Behind that statistic are 2,500 stories of individual human tragedy. Unfortunately, funding cuts have stalled efforts to help people get treatment and return to lives as productive citizens. Instead, those struggling with addiction continue on the margins of society, shuffling in and out of jail, and leading generally unstable nomadic existences. Untreated addiction is bad for them, for society because it leads to more crime, and for taxpayers because it leads to higher spending on jails and prisons. Budget cuts have driven drug court participation down 23 percent statewide.

Three of the five bills I have filed this year are aimed at stemming opioid addiction. The first, House Bill 1618, permits pharmacies and other entities with secure facilities to accept unused prescription drugs for safe disposal. Missouri lags far behind on this issue. The only people or entities who can accept unused prescription drugs under current state law are the doctors who gave the prescription or law enforcement when they sponsor drug take-back days. The bill provides a safe and convenient way for people to dispose of excess prescription medications so that they don’t end up on the street or in our water supply. HB 1618 was heard in committee this week and I am hopeful that it can move steadily through the legislative process.

I have also sponsored House Bill 2120, which increases eligibility for Medicaid for new mothers. It specifically states that they are eligible for substance abuse treatment for up to two years after giving birth; and House Bill 2209, which establishes a Prescription Abuse Register. The PAR would consist of a list of people who have (1) committed drug or other crimes in which a court has identified them as a substance abuser, (2) lost civil court cases in which a court has found that they have a substance abuse problem, or (3) voluntarily put themselves on the list. The PAR would be available to any provider who suspected a patient of doctor shopping. These are just three of even more bills that have been sponsored to help address this crisis. I’m looking forward to working on them over the next four months.