As Missouri celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice told state lawmakers the perspective of the past can give us strength to endure the present situation and give hope for our future despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Justice George Draper gave his annual State of the Judiciary speech virtually Tuesday.
"Since the pandemic began, we have made one principle clear: the courts of the state of Missouri shall remain open," Draper said. "Not all our communities were equally impacted, so my colleagues and I have tried to strike an appropriate balance between empowering local courts to conduct necessary business and the need to protect all those involved in court proceedings."
While in-person appearances may have been suspended at times, courts have remained available with the ability to conduct remote proceedings.
Draper said Missouri was better prepared than other state court systems to handle the pandemic.
"We have spent decades creating statewide technology infrastructure, allowing continued electronic case filings and court determinations when in-person proceedings are not required," Draper said. "It is not only the way we all do business, but as the pandemic has shown, it can also be a lifeline for Missouri citizens."
The Missouri Supreme Court had 20 days of oral arguments last year, two days fewer than in 2019, Draper said.
"Cases took a dip in mid-March, but after our circuit courts began implementing the statewide operational directives and guidelines in May, their ratio of cases disposed to cases filed for the remainder of the year was only 5.6 percent less than what their ratio had been in January," Draper said. "The other good news is that, for the cases with designated time standards, our circuit courts timely resolved nearly 91 percent of them. That's not even 2 percent below the average from the prior four years."
They have also been looking at court security during the pandemic, and preliminary findings have shown the need for facility upgrades and additional security equipment, as well as additional full-time marshals and deputy marshals statewide.
"Our security staff need additional training and more standardized compensation," Draper said. "Our judges need to ensure their privacy can be protected, and, in my opinion, we need to be able to use witness protection services funds to protect judges and their families against credible threats of violence. As the tragic events in our nation's Capitol building last month made painfully clear, security is an investment we cannot afford not to make."
Draper also told lawmakers diversity in the state's judiciary is improving, but it's something that should continue to be addressed.
"Of the judges recently appointed under Missouri's nonpartisan court plan, 14 have been women, judges of color, or both," Draper said. "However, as events from the Ferguson protests through the racial unrest during the past year have shown, we still have work to do as a society. As designed, our legislative and executive branches are where we can take our arguments for changes in law and policy, and our judicial branch is where we take our legal disputes for a peaceable resolution. But our judicial branch does not work as intended if we are not trusted to provide a fair and impartial forum for all people to have their cases heard and decided."
Draper said they continue the work to address implicit bias and "institutional racism that exist systemically throughout our country."
"As of July 2019, all lawyers licensed in Missouri are required to include at least one hour of implicit bias training in their 15 hours of annual continuing legal education," Draper said. "Missouri judges and court staff already were required to complete annual implicit bias training. Indeed, some may say ethics and morals cannot be legislated, but just like all of you in the General Assembly are working to ensure citizens respect each other in person, the courts of Missouri will continue to prescribe conduct commensurate with the highest principles of professionalism and good moral character.
"Through our efforts, we hope to build a culture of respect and fairness and a judicial system in which all persons are truly equal under the law," Draper added. "The people of Missouri deserve no less."