Prosecutors serving double duty as judges

ST. LOUIS COUNTY - In the post-Ferguson era, NewsChannel 5 continues to uncover what some consider glaring inequities regarding justice and fairness. Our investigative reporters found individuals serving as prosecutors in one municipality, then turning around and serving as judges in another.

It's a system that seems ripe for conflict; and yet, in Missouri, it's all perfectly legal.

Attorney Ronald Brockmeyer works as a St. Charles divorce and criminal defense lawyer during the day, but by night he works part time prosecuting traffic violators in Dellwood. He also works part time as a judge in nearby Breckenridge Hills.

"I don't think that's a conflict at all," Brockmeyer said. "Not at all."

Brockmeyer makes $600 a session and isn't alone in wearing multiple hats.

"I'm the judge in Ferguson, a judge in Breckenridge Hills, a prosecutor in Florissant, a prosecutor in Vinita Park, and prosecutor here in Dellwood," he said.

Brendan Roediger, a supervisor for St. Louis University's Civil Litigation Clinic, says the system should not exist in its present state.

"It does appear ridiculous. I mean, it's the same folks who are the players in every municipality," he said.

Brockmeyer not only defends the system, he says serving as judge and prosecutor is good for defendants.

"I see both sides of it," he said. "I think it's even better."

Julie Deurr doesn't see it that way.

"What chance do we have, really? What chance do we have going up against the prosecutor, attorney, or judge?" she said. "Come on. He's calling all the shots and making all the decisions. We have none."

Neil Bruntrager, general counsel for the St. Louis Police Officer's Association, works part time as a judge where police officers from county jurisdictions sometimes testify against defendants.

"There has never been a conflict. If there was I would remove myself," Bruntrager said. "If anything, being a defense attorney makes me more sympathetic as a judge in terms of scrutinizing the evidence."

St. Louis County and the Circuit Attorney's offices both have full time prosecutors that are allowed to work part time as municipal judges. While prosecutors can do it, state law says public defenders cannot.

"Traditionally, because of the importance of these governmental roles, be they public defender or prosecutor, or judge, the idea has been they are a full-time job and you don't do work on the side. That remains true for public defenders, it remains true for circuit judges, I think it would make sense to be true for circuit attorneys," Roediger said.

Frank Vatterott is a real estate attorney who works a few days a month as a judge. He admits parts of the current system are flawed and he's chairing a committee to try and fix it.

"You see the same people," he said. "When I was a judge in St. Ann and Overland, I'd see a guy in Overland Wednesday night, and St. Ann on Tuesday night."

"I'd say, 'Have you ever been in trouble before?' He'd say no. Then I'd see him the next night in St. Ann and I knew he lied to me. So you do, it's just the nature of the beast."

Because traffic courts deal with hundreds of people a night, critics say it is possible individuals prosecute and judge the same defendant in different courtrooms.

"If there would be a conflict, I wouldn't handle the case," Brockmeyer said.

But how would he know if the name was Smith or Jones?

"They always know me. They always say hey. It's never been a conflict," Brockmeyer said.

Some believe consolidation of St. Louis County's 81 municipal courts is the only way to fix a system that doesn't appear completely fair. That legal fix would have to come out of Jefferson City and the state legislature.

Michael Downy, who teaches legal ethics at both St. Louis and Washington universities, says the greatest danger is if there are no systems in place for judges to make sure they are not prosecuting individuals they judged.

Meanwhile, Vatterott says no such system exists.


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