Missouri court upholds $2M judge-discrimination case

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a $2.1 million discrimination judgment in favor of a white woman who was rejected for a municipal judgeship in Kansas City.

Melissa Howard was one of three finalists — all of whom were white females — for a vacant seat on the city court in 2006. The Kansas City Council repeatedly rejected all three during public meetings in which council members criticized the lack of diversity among the finalists, specifically bemoaning that there were no black candidates among the finalists.

Howard, an assistant prosecutor in Clay County, filed a discrimination lawsuit and was awarded more than $600,000 in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages. That award was tossed out last year by a state appeals court panel, which concluded that municipal judges were not covered under Missouri Human Rights Act.

But the Supreme Court reinstated the judgment for Howard, ruling that municipal judges are employees of the city and thus can claim discrimination under state law that bars employers from refusing to hire people because of race or skin color. The Supreme Court also ruled that cities — like private-sector employees — can be held liable for punitive damages in discrimination cases.

Howard referred a call Tuesday to her Jefferson City attorney, former Supreme Court judge Edward “Chip” Robertson Jr.

“Obviously she’s gratified that the court saw that the actions of Kansas City had violated her rights,” Robertson said.

He said the ruling was important for two reasons. First, it established that judges are considered employees under state law, Robertson said.

“Secondly, as to the human rights act, cities are treated just like anyone else — if you commit an act for which punitive damages are allowed, you’re going to have to pay,” Robertson said.

Because of interest and attorney fees, the ultimate cost to Kansas City likely will be several hundred thousand dollars higher than the original $2.1 million judgment, said Kansas City’s attorney, Galen Beaufort. Although disappointed in the result, Beaufort pledged that the city will pay Howard.

“The former City Council, whose actions were addressed in this case, were very concerned at the time about the importance of diversity within our municipal court, and they tried their best to further that societal good,” Beaufort said.

The city court vacancy was created by the Aug. 31, 2006, retirement of Judge Marcia Walsh, whom the Supreme Court noted was the only white female city judge at the time. Three of the six judges at that time were minorities, the court said in a footnote to its ruling.

When judicial vacancies occur in Kansas City courts, a special nominating committee reviews the applicants and selects three finalists that are forwarded to the mayor and City Council. The council twice rejected the full slate of finalists. Howard did not apply when a third slate of finalists was submitted, Beaufort said. He said that third group included racially diverse candidates. Katherine Bromfield Emke, a white female who had been a finalist on all three occasions, ultimately was chosen for the judgeship in February 2008.

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