Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson delivers 2023 State of the Judiciary
Missouri Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson focused on the importance of service to the people of Missouri in his State of the Judiciary address to the Missouri Legislature Wednesday morning in Jefferson City. The rule of law, public trust in the judiciary, recognition and competitive compensation for court personnel, technology, and addressing the mental health crisis as it relates to delayed justice were also included in the annual address.
During his remarks to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly at the State Capitol, Wilson began by discussing the job of a judge in relation to the law stemming from state and federal constitutions and statutes written by lawmakers.
“Being a judge isn’t easy, but it’s real simple,” Wilson said. “… Judges apply this law to the facts to resolve the disputes brought to them. That’s it.”
Wilson said it is essential to “... have one place in society where the law controls, where facts are proved with evidence, where truth matters, and where justice prevails.”
Wilson said the rule of law is possible because it matters to the public and the public trusts the courts to defend it.
While the judicial branch remains the most trusted branch of government, surveys conducted by the National Center for State Courts have shown declining public trust in both federal and state courts. Confidence in state courts dropped to 60% in 2022.
Wilson asked lawmakers for their support in upholding the public’s trust in the judicial branch. He said he understands when people do not agree with every decision Missouri judges make, but it’s important to recognize judges are doing their best.
“If you want to tell your constituents you think we got it wrong, that’s your right,” Wilson said. “But when you do, take a minute to explain that – even when you think we got it wrong – you know judges are just public servants like you … doing their best to decide cases based on the facts and their best understanding of the law … because I promise you that’s true.”
Wilson noted the resolution of more than 750,000 circuit court cases last year thanks to “the hearts and the hands of the judicial branch,” which he described as the 400 circuit and associate circuit judges and 3,000 clerks, bailiffs, juvenile officers, juvenile detention staff, court reporters, commissioners, and others who work together in the state’s courts.
Wilson joined Gov. Parson in asking the legislature to adopt the recommended cost-of-living adjustment for state employees in the fiscal year 2023 supplemental budget. He added the Court also requested funding to provide for the overtime court clerks are working to meet obligations of the passage of Amendment 3 last fall.
Wilson provided examples of how the Court has leveraged technology to make Missouri’s courts more open and accessible, from resolving traffic tickets online to the July 1 implementation of remote public access to court documents.
“It is astounding how quickly a cutting-edge innovation becomes an essential part of what we do and how we do it,” he said.
He asked lawmakers to continue to support investments in technology through general revenue and renewing the $7 filing fee for court automation, which was implemented in 1994 and has never increased.
In his address, Wilson also highlighted the past collaboration of the judiciary and legislators to provide access to treatment courts, noting the success of reducing recidivism, saving taxpayer money, and saving lives.
Yet, Wilson warned treatment courts do not address all issues, noting the courts are encountering the growing mental health crisis. Wilson noted the mental health crisis can delay justice when individuals are arrested and charged but “manifesting mental health conditions so profound they are not even competent to stand trial.”
Wilson called attention to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative led by the Missouri Department of Corrections as one solution to address the “limbo” these cases present. The initiative recommends the legislature “strengthen efforts to bring competency restoration services to the defendants where they are.”
Before closing, Wilson announced the Supreme Court of Missouri “will lose two of our number to retirement” this fall. Hon. Patricia Breckenridge and Hon. George W. Draper III will retire. Combined, Breckenridge and Draper have served as judges in some capacity for more than 70 years.
“We will miss them dearly,” Wilson said.
Wilson closed by noting the importance of one’s opportunity to serve others through the government.
“We will all be judged, as we should be, collectively,” Wilson said. “On how well the government – the People’s Government – worked. On how well it served them.”
Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court in December 2012 and was retained by voters at the November 2014 general election for a 12-year term. He began his two-year term as chief justice on July 1, 2021. A full transcript of the 2022 State of the Judiciary is available at courts.mo.gov.
Photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House of Representatives