Starting next month, Franklin County will operate its own municipal court system which officials say will expedite resolution of local traffic and zoning violation cases.
The Franklin County Commission this week unanimously approved a commission order to establish the court which was made possible by an amendment to a Missouri House bill approved earlier this year.
County Counselor Mark Vincent said the new court will allow the county to handle cases that currently can be delayed for years in state court or fall by the wayside entirely.
The court won’t be used to steal cases, and revenue, away from the state courts, he said.
“We’ll only handle county violations and traffic violations on county roads,” Vincent said. “We won’t be handling major cases or even DWIs (driving while intoxicated cases).”
He noted planning and zoning violations, which are generally classified as Class A misdemeanors, have bogged down local circuit court dockets. Some outstanding cases date back to 2006.
Commissioner Ann Schroeder said state courts have more important cases to handle.
The county municipal judge will eventually be an elected position, with the first election in 2016.
The first judge, Walter A. Murray Jr., was appointed by commissioners Tuesday.
Murray will serve a four-year term until Dec. 31, 2016
He will be paid $2,000 a month with no benefits.
“Judge Murray is one of the most qualified people in all of eastern Missouri,” Vincent said.
Murray is a former associate circuit court judge, Union city attorney and Franklin County prosecuting attorney.
Murray said he was honored and excited about serving as the first municipal judge for the county.
“Getting something like this started will be a challenge, but I’m encouraged,” he said. “I’m encouraged that we’re not taking money away from the education system by taking cases away from the circuit judges.”
A considerable portion of public education budgets comes from fines and fees handled through state courts.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said having the position be elected was a consideration raised by judges in the local area.
Neighboring Jefferson County established a municipal court in 2004. The municipal court judge there is appointed, not elected.
The position of county municipal prosecuting attorney will be appointed.
Joe Purschke, who currently serves as the county’s assistant counselor, was appointed to the position Tuesday.
Purschke’s law firm, Purschke, White, Robinson & Becker LLC, also was appointed to the position.
The contracted position will pay $5,500 per month.
Vincent said a portion of that money is already in the county’s planning and zoning department budget as a contracted service.
That money will become part of the court’s budget.
Vincent said the court will generate roughly $250,000 a year in revenue, with expenses of around $150,000, based on figures from Jefferson County’s municipal court.
Exact figures on the current expenses and revenues for the Jefferson County municipal court were not available, as calls to the county auditor’s office were not returned by the time The Missourian went to press.
Franklin County’s estimated expenses include wages for the judge and prosecutor, as well as wages and benefits for a full-time municipal clerk and other general expenses such as office equipment and supplies.
The court will likely meet in the county’s historic courthouse.
The third floor has a courtroom currently only used for special events, which was restored during the renovation project completed as part of the county’s three-phase building project.
“We’re establishing a brand-new court and we have to build it from the ground up,” Vincent said.
Vincent stated publicly Tuesday that the decision to appoint Purschke, White, Robinson & Becker was the commission’s, not his, noting that he currently is of council with the firm and previously was a partner at the firm.
Commissioner Terry Wilson said the firm was chosen because of its experience with the county — Purschke has served as attorney for the planning and zoning department for years.
The House bill which made establishing the court possible was HB 1171.
Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, added an amendment to the bill late in this year’s session after a bill sponsored by Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, failed to make it out of the Legislature.
Griesheimer said in June he tried to push for a municipal court for the county during his first term in the Senate.
“The circuit court judges don’t like dealing with these issues, it ties up the docket,” he said previously.
“It truly is a local control issue,” Griesheimer said.