12:22 PM

Chief Justice Draper highlights circuit realignment and criminal justice reforms in his State of the Judiciary address


Realignment of the circuit courts, technology needs, expanding drug treatment courts and criminal justice reform were key topics Wednesday morning when Missouri Chief Justice George W. Draper III presented his first State of the Judiciary.  

Draper SOTJ 2020

Realignment of the circuit courts, technology needs, expanding drug treatment courts and criminal justice reform were key topics Wednesday morning when Missouri Chief Justice George W. Draper III presented his first State of the Judiciary.  

During his address to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly at the State Capitol in Jefferson City, Draper touched briefly on his personal history. As the great grandson of a slave girl from North Carolina and the son of a father who taught at Lincoln’s “separate but equal” law school in 1949, Draper commented on various points of history that have marked the Supreme Court of Missouri’s approaching bicentennial.

Missouri’s first constitution, adopted in 1820, created a three-member Supreme Court. Laughter was heard when Draper share that “so coveted was the position that, of the first three individuals Gov. Alexander McNair sought to appoint to our now prominent bench, only one accepted – the other two said ‘no thank you.’”

Draper noted that much has changed in the last 200 years. The court now has seven members, of which four have been women. Draper is only the second African American to serve the state’s high court. The first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri, the Hon. Ronnie L. White, was in attendance and recognized by Draper and members of the legislature. White is now a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Missouri.

When the circuit court system was first instituted there were only four circuits throughout the state. Today, for Missouri’s 114 counties and the City of St. Louis, there are 46 judicial courts. Draper applauded the work of the judicial realignment task force’s efforts to ensure that circuit boundaries are fair. The task force found that of the 46 circuits, only four needed realignment. The task force’s realignment plan was adopted at the Judicial Conference of Missouri’s annual business meeting without dissent.

Draper’s comment made clear the reasoning, “Less time behind a steering wheel means more time on the bench to serve our citizens.”

Draper also touched on necessary updates to the courts’ technology. The state’s case management system is 25 years old and the while Missouri was one of the first states to institute court automation, systems need to be kept secure and up to date. Draper thanked the legislature for recent funding and asked for additional funding to support the completion of development of a new automated court system to benefit all Missourians.

Draper thanked Missouri’s state legislature for its commitment to expanding access to drug treatment courts which began in 1998 when the first drug treatment courts were instituted through legislation. As a result of legislation passed in 2019, there will be treatment courts in every circuit in the state by August 2021. In addition to general substance abuse, there are now 15 treatment courts in 40 counties which specifically serve veterans.

Speaking to criminal justice reform, Draper complimented the legislature’s 2019 move to expand expungement opportunities. He also touted changes to rules governing misdemeanor and felony procedures and state constitutional mandates to guarantee bail with sufficient sureties that is not excessive.  

However, Draper cautioned legislators on complacence regarding the state’s public defender system. “Speaking from the perspective of both a former prosecutor and a former trial judge, I can tell you the system simply does not work without a sufficiently funded and staffed public defender system.”

"To be sure, all attorneys in public service work long, hard hours, and many are underpaid and under-recognized. But if criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street, those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of society, and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives. Together, we all share the burden of our state constitutional mandate demanding that “justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.”” 

Draper concluded his remarks with deep appreciation for the service of the judiciary’s judges and staff and how far we’ve come since 1820.

“When Missourians 200 years from now look back upon this time, and examine all our works, reforms, and accomplishments, I hope they will find us to have been leaders … innovators … collaborators … who left our state greater than we found it and fully supported those who toiled in and built cooperation among our co-equal branches of government.”

Draper was appointed to the high court in 2011 and began his tenure as chief justice in July 2019. A full transcript of the 2020 State of the Judiciary is available at courts.mo.gov.