Tax-dodging Ferguson judge will resign -- but only from local cases
Judge giving a verdict (Shutterstock)

Ronald J Brockmeyer, accused in a scathing report of aggressively using the municipal court to raise revenue for the city, stepped down

The judge in Ferguson, Missouri, who is accused of running a modern-day debtors’ prison while fixing traffic tickets for himself and owing $170,000 in unpaid taxes, resigned on Monday as state authorities seized control of the city’s court system.

Ronald J Brockmeyer stepped down as Ferguson’s municipal court judge after Missouri’s supreme court ordered that all the court’s cases be transferred to the St Louis County circuit court, according to a source who was not authorised to speak publicly about the decision.

Under the same ruling, Judge Roy L Richter of the Missouri court of appeals will be assigned to the county’s circuit court, where he will hear all of Ferguson’s municipal court cases “to help restore public trust and confidence” in the system.

“Judge Richter will bring a fresh, disinterested perspective to this court’s practices and he is able and willing to implement needed reforms,” Missouri’s chief justice, Mary R Russell, said in a statement that described the move as an “extraordinary action” taken under article five of the Missouri constitution.

A scathing report by the Department of Justice last week concluded that Ferguson’s police and courts system was blighted by racial bias.

Investigators accused Brockmeyer and his court officials of aggressively using the municipal court to raise revenue for the city. The policy is blamed by many for damaging relations between the city’s overwhelmingly white authorities and residents, two-thirds of whom are African American.

Brockmeyer, 70, was singled out by investigators as a driving force behind Ferguson’s strategy of using its municipal court to aggressively generate revenues. Investigators found Brockmeyer had boasted of creating a range of new court fines, “many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful”.

Ferguson is accused in a class-action federal lawsuit, brought by public defenders and legal non-profits, of imprisoning impoverished residents in the city jail for being unable to pay fines of a few hundred dollars for minor offences.

While jailing residents, Brockmeyer owes more than $172,000 in unpaid taxes to the US government, the Guardian disclosed last week. A staff member at Brockmeyer’s law offices in St Charles County did not return a call seeking comment.

A press release accompanying Russell’s order said that all pending and future cases that were to be heard by Ferguson’s municipal court would instead be heard by Richter at the circuit court from 16 March until further notice. A court spokeswoman could not confirm how cases would proceed this week.

The decision was welcomed cautiously by Alec Karakatsanis, the co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, one of the legal non-profits that is suing the city.

“The problems we are dealing with are endemic to our legal system and not isolated to the small municipality of Ferguson,” said Karakatsanis. “I hope this serves as a first small step toward confronting the horrors that we visit everyday on poor people of colour in the legal system and not as any kind of attempted solution.

Russell said that staff from the state courts administrator’s office would also be assigned to “review Ferguson municipal court practices and to assist Richter in making necessary changes”.

The state’s chief justice signalled in her statement on Monday that regional or even statewide reform may be necessary for a municipal courts system that has been sharply criticised as a failed system that has lost the trust of many residents.

“Although we recognize the local control our statutes give these uniquely local entities, we must not sacrifice individual rights and society’s collective commitment to justice,” said Russell.

Brockmeyer was also named among a group of white Ferguson officials found by Justice Department investigators to be writing off citations for themselves and friends while punishing residents for similar offences. Another of these officials, court clerk Mary Ann Twitty, was fired by the city in connection with racist emails also uncovered.

The report said Brockmeyer agreed to “take care” of a speeding ticket for a senior Ferguson police officer in August 2014, and had a red light camera ticket he received himself from the nearby city of Hazelwood dismissed in October 2013.