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Jones Talks Ferguson to Missouri's Judges

May 25, 2017

    Athens attorney Leslie Spornberger Jones spoke to the Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges Association (MMACJA) today. A former municipal judge herself, Ms. Jones discussed the importance of judicial independence, the need for bond reform, and how implicit bias affects judicial decision making at the MMACJA’s annual conference in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. “The purpose of my talk today is to help you understand with intellectual honesty what happened in Ferguson, so that each of you can run your court properly,” she explained to a group of more than 200 municipal and associate circuit court judges. 

    “If you told me 15 years ago that I would be standing here today in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri talking to a roomful of judges about an event that galvanized our nation, I would have never believed it,” Jones said. “But, through my work with the Georgia Council of Municipal Court Judges, I learned about practices occurring across the country that undermine justice in our nation’s busiest courts.” 

    “The Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges Association was formed in 1965 by a small group of judges who realized the need for [the] courts to be more uniform and professional,” says the MMACJA website. The association conducts annual training for its judges, where Ms. Jones was invited to speak. 

    Jones focused her discussion on three main tools judges can use to keep their courts running properly. “The biggest issues in Ferguson were lack of judicial independence, focus on revenue, and disparities created by implicit and explicit biases. I teach judges that they can’t allow their relationships to dictate how they run their courts. They can’t be tax collectors. And, they have to be aware of, and overcome, their own implicit biases in order to deal with people fairly.” 

    “Judges don’t set out to undermine people’s constitutional rights. But many judges go along to get along. They don’t rock the boat to keep their jobs, and they end up running courts that are not really courts. Judges have to understand that they have opportunities everyday to be a beacon of justice. Especially in municipal courts, which are the busiest courts in the nation, judges have to know the law and follow it,” Jones said. 

    After the presentation, Jones had the opportunity to meet many of Missouri’s municipal judges, including Judge Terry Brown, who is the new municipal judge in Ferguson. Judge Brown thanked Jones for coming to Missouri to talk about what happened in Ferguson. “We have a new police chief, new clerk, new finance director, new manager. Everyone is new. So, a lot has changed. We have a lot of opportunity to do things right, and that is what we are focused on.”

    Another judge, who grew up in Ferguson, explained, “It’s really sad what happened in Ferguson. Because of the riots, tons of houses are up for sale, and no one wants to move there. Everyone wants to move beyond what happened.”

    As a part of her visit, Jones visited Ferguson to see what the area looked like. Ferguson is a small town with a beautiful park, big schools, and a cute downtown area. “But it is obvious it is segregated, even now,” she said. “A lot of buildings are boarded up or empty with for sale signs out front. Only time will tell if Ferguson heals.”

    Jones will conclude her visit in Missouri with visits to the capitol in Jefferson City and the Arch in St. Louis before returning home. 

    Jones currently serves as the Immediate Past President of the Council of Municipal Court Judges, and has taught judges in Superior, Municipal, Magistrate, and Probate Courts about what happened in Ferguson since 2016.