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Zel M. Fischer, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivers his State of the Judiciary address during a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly in Jefferson City.

Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court delivers address

Editor’s Note: Missouri  Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer delivered his state of the Judiciary address this week. Such speeches do not normally make for breathes reading. Metro Voice is printing the bulk of it here to allow for it to be shared with citizens unfiltered by the media, and political interpretation. –Dwight Widaman

I would like to begin by introducing my colleagues, who collectively – when
you include our trial court and court of appeals tenures – have more than
130 years of judicial experience: Judge Laura Denvir Stith; Judge Mary R.
Russell; Judge Patricia Breckenridge; Judge George W. Draper III; Judge
Paul C. Wilson; and our newest member – appointed last April by Governor
Eric Greitens – Judge W. Brent Powell.

I am honored and humbled that, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, my
role is to protect and advance the judiciary, and its stature as an
essential branch of our state’s government.

Our founding fathers foresaw the necessity of governance and the privileges
and duties self-governance under our constitution would bring. As John Jay,
the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, told a
gathering in 1777, “The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has
favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing the forms of
government under which they should live.”

Our chosen form of government – consisting of three coequal, co-sovereign
branches – is now well-entrenched. And it is up to those of us in this room
this morning, whom the citizens of Missouri have entrusted, to carry out
its governance.

Core Functions of the Judicial Branch

Socrates said, only four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to
answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially. And so we
strive every day, by careful study of the facts and the law, to reach the
correct result. Some would say this historical view of judging is not
enough for the Supreme Court, because there are the additional obligations
to ensure the court system is well-administered and one in which the public
has trust and confidence.

A Well-Administered Judiciary

I am happy to report Missouri’s judiciary is in good shape. We are
nationally recognized as leaders. Two areas I wish to highlight today are
the processes we use to determine who is qualified to practice law and our
innovative use of technology.

In 2010, I recommended to my colleagues that Missouri become the first
state to adopt the uniform bar examination. This innovative concept
recognizes that the same bar examination given on the same date in many
states generates a score that is portable to other states administering
that same exam.

The uniform bar examination is not a national bar. It simply permits an
applicant to transfer a bar exam score to another participating state to
pursue a law license in that state without the undue delay, stress, and
expense of having to retake the bar exam.

My thought was this process would substantially benefit law students – the
consumers of legal education – many of whom take the bar exam before they
have a job and, therefore, before they know in what state they will need a
license. At the same time, states using the uniform bar examination
maintain their ability to protect the public – the consumers of legal
services – by retaining local control over the character and fitness
investigations and the manner of testing local legal issues as conditions
of earning a law license in that state.

The idea that states would accept a portable bar examination score faced
resistance when it was first raised. Most innovations do.

But the Supreme Court of Missouri recognized the value of the uniform bar
exam to law students, their families and their employers and became the
first state to adopt it. We believed other states could be persuaded to
follow suit. And we were right – as Missouri begins its eighth year
administering the uniform bar examination, I proudly report another 29
jurisdictions have now joined us in using it, and we have every expectation
that number will continue to rise.

Missouri courts are also continuing their tradition of innovation in
technology. More than a decade ago, we became the first state to offer the
public access to information from a statewide case management system using
Case.net, and last summer, the Missouri Judiciary was ranked third – not
nationally but internationally! – for the best use of technology to improve
court services and access to the public. The award specifically focused on
our new Show-Me Courts system, Track This Case tool in Case.net, Pay by Web
services, and the mobile optimization of the Missouri Courts website. In
case you are counting, we came in behind Arizona and Dubai.

As evidenced by this award, we remain committed to delivering exceptional
services and improving public access to our courts. Each of the technology
solutions for which we received accolades was designed with Missouri
citizens in mind.

Regulating the practice of law, including who is qualified to begin
practicing, and using technology to make our courts more open, transparent
and efficient are core functions that fall within the supervisory
responsibility of your Supreme Court.

We are proud of these successes and strive to improve how we perform our
more familiar core functions, and we stand ready to cooperate with the
legislative and executive branches in areas of overlapping concern.

I see four particular areas in which we three branches of government can
continue to work together to move this great state of Missouri forward: (1)
through the work of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force; (2) through the
expanded use of treatment courts; (3) through continued emphasis on
criminal justice reform; and (4) through cooperative evaluation of the
efficient management of our judicial resources.

Justice Reinvestment Task Force

As I am sure you are aware, Missouri continues to face challenges in its
criminal justice system. While, nationally, violent crimes are decreasing,
it is not true for Missouri.

As a result, we are spending more on corrections than ever before. Our
total incarceration rate remains well above the national average and is
growing. We have joined with you in a call for help.

The Supreme Court joined Speaker Richardson, President Pro Tem Richard and
Governor Greitens last May in seeking assistance from the United States
Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable
Trust to find new ways to improve our troubled system. They granted our
request for help in collecting and analyzing data to assist in developing
policy options. Through this public-private partnership, we hope to keep
corrections spending in check, reinvest those savings in evidence-based
strategies to reduce recidivism and, ultimately, and most importantly, to
enhance public safety for all Missourians.

With representatives of all three branches of government working
hand-in-hand, members engaged in months of study and finished their
recommendations last month. The task force is developing legislative
options for you to consider. We are optimistic these changes will produce
significant, sensible and meaningful improvements.

Treatment Courts and the Opioid Crisis

The second area where our work together can pay off is in the use of
treatment courts to help break the cycle of crime, and to respond to the
opioid crisis now plaguing Missouri and our entire nation.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United
States, with the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids continuing to
climb. Our state mirrors the national statistics, as opioid use disorder
has taken an enormous toll on Missouri. Missouri lost 1,066 people in 2015
and 1,371 people in 2016 to a drug overdose. This is a staggering increase
in deaths.

To grapple with this terrible epidemic, Missouri’s treatment courts feature
multidisciplinary teams offering a two-fold solution. First, they are
addressing the crimes that often are due to substance use; and second, they
are helping those who are addicted, and their families, improve their lives
and break the cycle of addiction. We have already seen a steady increase in
the number of participants entering our treatment courts who say their drug
of choice is heroin or other opioids.

Like they have shown in other intersections of drugs and crime, we
anticipate our treatment courts will be on the front lines of the opioid
battle. By continuing to reduce drug use and keeping addicted offenders out
of prison, those offenders can continue to work and provide for their

The success of our treatment courts has largely depended on the cooperation
we have had from our partners in the legislature. If we are to break the
cycle of drugs and crime, every Missourian in need should have a treatment
court program within reach.

Research demonstrates treatment courts are more cost-effective than any
other criminal justice strategy. But our treatment courts have been able to
serve only a small percentage of individuals facing felony drug charges.
Those numbers began to drop even more last July, when the 27-percent core
reduction to existing programs took effect. Since then, admission into our
various treatment court programs has dropped an average of 23 percent. And
right now, there are 15 counties with no access to any type of treatment
court. Individuals addicted to opioids and other substances in these areas
are restrained by county lines they can’t see.

We will work with you over the coming months to expand the reach of
treatment courts in hopes of making this resource-saving, life-saving
program available in every Missouri jurisdiction.

Criminal Justice Task Force

Our work together as three coequal branches of government continues to be
essential to improving our criminal justice system. Last June, the Court
established a task force focused broadly on criminal justice.

This group is led by Judge Michael Noble of St. Louis, Christian County
Prosecutor Amy Fite and defense attorney J.R. Hobbs of Kansas City. They
will recommend evidence-based risk-assessment tools for determining a
defendant’s suitability for pretrial release; recommend ways to improve how
courts impose fines, fees and costs; and identify technological
opportunities to improve notice, compliance and public safety.

These efforts are part of broader national movement away from bail release
decisions based on financial conditions toward considerations of the risks
posed by individual defendants. The national experts suggest there are ways
to provide effective screening and supervision to monitor those defendants
deemed safe for release during the pretrial period.

It seems obvious and important that – before a trial is held and guilt or
innocence is determined – we reserve our jail space for those who pose the
most danger to the community or risk of fleeing the jurisdiction, and not
those who simply may be too poor to post bail. Studies show even short
stints in jail increase the likelihood of missing school or losing jobs and
housing. And, of course, pretrial supervision costs a local community
substantially less than pretrial incarceration.

I will be leading a team to a pretrial justice reform summit in
Indianapolis in May. We will learn about reform efforts nationwide and will
have an opportunity to develop an action plan for appropriate responses
here in our own state. I am pleased to announce that, in addition to our
state courts administrator, Kathy Lloyd, and Montgomery County Associate
Circuit Judge Kelly Broniec, joining me at the summit will be Judge Jack
Goodman, presiding judge of the 39th Judicial Circuit, and Judge Rob Mayer,
presiding judge of the 35th Judicial Circuit.

Both Judge Goodman and Judge Mayer are former members of this General
Assembly – serving both in this house of representatives and in the senate
– and they are with us today. I believe their legal education and judicial
experience, coupled with practical legislative know-how, will assist the
Court in deciding what reforms are good for Missouri and how to shepherd
through the legislative process any changes that may require your
attention. This also demonstrates I am not opposed to both my hunting dogs
and my judges being “House”-trained.

Efficient Management of Court Resources

Finally, we look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with the
legislative and executive branches to improve our service to the state. We
have made significant strides in assessing our own internal operations to
find ways to be as efficient and effective as possible.

Ten years ago, we created a “judicial partnership program” designed to help
our busiest circuits work through backlogs of cases by partnering them with
circuits where judges were available to help meet that demand. This, of
course, was important for the citizens and businesses who needed the courts
to resolve legal matters of great importance to them – and it was important
for us to use our available resources as best we could to meet those needs.

This ability to temporarily transfer judges from one jurisdiction to
another is an important design of our state constitution. While judges are
assigned to particular local courts – by county, circuit or appellate
district – article V, section 6 also provides that the Supreme Court of
Missouri may assign any judge in the state to hear any particular case or
serve any jurisdiction in addition to the jurisdiction that judge serves
daily. As a result, whether elected by county or circuit or selected by
nonpartisan commission, every associate circuit, circuit, appellate, and
Supreme Court judge is an employee of Missouri and can be assigned to serve
throughout the state.

The primary reason the judicial partnership program was so successful was
because it was locally driven, empowering the partnered presiding judges to
determine how and when to share judicial resources. I saw how well this
worked first-hand. When I was a trial judge in the 4th Judicial Circuit, in
the northwest corner of the state, I joined the other five judges of that
five-county circuit in regularly traveling to help the 16th Judicial
Circuit in Jackson County reduce its backlog of cases.

I am proud to say, last September, the judicial transfer work group
dissolved the last two remaining partnerships and, with it, the formal
partnership program itself. We managed our own resources so well, and the
circuit partnerships had been so successful over the past decade, the
backlog of cases that called for the Supreme Court’s intervention has been
eliminated. Please join me in thanking the many hard-working judges who
participated in the mandatory transfer program for helping to advance the
timely, effective administration of justice for the people of Missouri. And
because no good deed should go unpunished, I also offer an ongoing thank
you to those judges who continue to accept ad hoc assignments throughout
the state.

Your confidence in the judiciary by tasking us with redrawing our circuits
is both appreciated and deserved. Your statutorily required realignment
study and plan present a unique opportunity to pursue a data-driven
evaluation of the multiple factors that impact court operations. These
factors include changes in workload, population and technology; increased
use of treatment and other problem-solving courts; and access to local
courts. The evaluation of these factors will be critical in determining
what, if any, changes in circuit boundaries and jurisdiction would enhance
the efficiency and effectiveness of our courts. This evaluation is also
necessary to help us understand the costs associated with any changes.

Given the complexity of this comprehensive evaluation, an order was entered
in November creating the “Task Force for the Preparation of a Circuit
Realignment Plan.” I will chair this task force, which includes a judge
from each district of the Missouri Court of Appeals and a mix of circuit
and associate circuit judges representing rural and urban courts from every
part of the state.

We will deliver to you in 2020, as required, a fiscally responsible plan
that will best serve the citizens and businesses of our state while
ensuring equal access to our courts by those in need.


I was raised to believe everything works better when everybody does their
own job well, but with a recognition that sometimes the big jobs require us
all to work together. I look forward to assisting in this big job of
governing our state, where each branch focuses on its distinct core
functions first but cooperates and works together when challenges and
opportunities arise.

One thing we all share is the support of those back home whom we love and
who make it possible for us to come here to Jefferson City. I feel blessed
to serve as the chief justice … and I’m thankful that position is
term-limited. But I feel even more blessed to be a grandfather of one, a
father of four and a husband to Julie for more than 32 years.

I want to thank my local sheriff, Dennis Martin, for agreeing to drive my
parents, Bob and Nancy Fischer, to be here with us today. My mother has
always been my loudest and most loyal cheerleader, and so the folks back
home are not surprised my mom’s first ride in the back seat of a police car
was to be here this morning with me. My dad has always been my best friend.
He was the best man at my wedding, and the bailiff in my court when I was a
trial judge. My only regret in transitioning from the trial bench to the
Supreme Court of Missouri is I miss starting each day with his coffee and
our conversation.

My parents still live where I grew up, in Watson. It’s the farthest north
and west town in Missouri, with a stated population of 100 on the welcome
sign … and trust me, that surely must include some livestock.

My parents’ only measurable wealth when I was growing up was the love they
had in their hearts for their children. That I now humbly stand before you
as chief justice is a testament to them … and proof beyond any reasonable
doubt the American Dream is alive and well in Missouri.

It has been a privilege to speak with you today. Thank you.