Cape to change law to hire new municipal judge

Friday, September 12, 2003

In a move that violates current city law, the Cape Girardeau City Council hired a municipal judge who doesn't live here.

A divided council -- behind closed doors on Aug. 18 -- chose Cape Girardeau County part-time prosecutor Teresa Bright-Pearson, who lives in East Prairie, Mo., as the city's next municipal judge. To make it legal, the council has to change a city ordinance on residency requirements for a municipal judge.

The revised ordinance is scheduled for final approval at Monday night's council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. at city hall.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said he planned to announce her hiring after the council's final vote on the ordinance. "We can't officially employ her until after the ordinance is changed," he said.

The issue has sparked criticism from some Cape Girardeau lawyers who say a city job should go to a city resident, not an out-of-town lawyer.

But Knudtson said, with today's technology of fax machines and electronic mail, there's no longer a need for a municipal judge to live in the city, although state law requires Missouri's municipal judges to be state residents.

Knudtson said having a non-resident as judge could insulate her from undue public pressure. "It may even allow the judge to be even more objective," the mayor said.

Bright-Pearson -- a former federal prosecutor and former Mississippi County prosecuting attorney -- will begin her duties Oct. 1 under a two-year contract that will pay her $49,000 a year for the part-time job, which requires her to preside over municipal court at city hall for two days each week. She had been making $21,804 as a part-time county prosecutor.

Knudtson defended the council's related decision to raise the salary of municipal judge by $12,500, saying Cape Girardeau has been paying its municipal judge far less than what comparable cities offer. Lawyers, he said, can make much higher salaries in private practice.

Bright-Pearson was chosen on a 4-3 vote over another finalist, Cape Girardeau lawyer Mercedes Fort. Knudtson and council members Matt Hopkins, Jay Purcell and Charlie Herbst voted for Bright-Pearson.

Council members Hugh White, Evelyn Boardman and Marcia Ritter voted against hiring her. The residency issue was a factor in the "no" votes of at least two of the three council members.

White said it was a concern, but not "an overwhelming factor." Once the decision was made, White said he felt it was important for the entire council to back the person hired.

Ritter said ultimately it came down to a majority vote. "Obviously to the four who voted for her, residency was not an issue, period," Ritter said.

Boardman couldn't be reached Thursday.

Bright-Pearson will replace municipal judge Kim Price, who has served as judge since May 2001. Price said she's leaving to take a job with the Osburn, Hine, Kuntze, Yates and Murphy law firm of Cape Girardeau.

Reasons for residency

Pat McMenamin, a lawyer who lives in Cape Girardeau and works as an assistant public defender, said there are good reasons to require a municipal judge to live in Cape Girardeau, including the judge's availability to sign warrants and be available for emergencies.

McMenamin, who was not an applicant for the job, said a local judge shares a sense of community with the city residents he or she serves. Hiring a Cape Girardeau resident also would help ensure that the judge's paycheck is spent in the local economy, he said.

Longtime Cape Girardeau lawyer Al Spradling Jr., father of former Cape Girardeau mayor Al Spradling III, said scrapping the residency requirement is a bad idea.

"I think it is the most absurd damn thing I've ever heard of," he said.

Spradling said the decision sets a bad precedent regarding other top positions in the city.

Knudtson said four lawyers applied for the advertised job of municipal judge. Three of them were from Cape Girardeau: Fort, Matthew Hill and city prosecutor Reagan Holliday.

Both Fort and Hill questioned the council's decision to hire an out-of-town lawyer and said their criticism wasn't sour grapes, but a philosophical concern.

"That person knows what the value system of the community is and can support it," Fort said.

Hill said the council had qualified Cape Girardeau residents from which to choose.

Knudtson said much of the criticism has come from defense lawyers who are alarmed by the prospect of having to represent clients before a tough judge. The mayor said he and other council members wanted a conservative judge who would punish lawbreakers.

Bright-Pearson said she can do the job without living in Cape Girardeau. She said she's worked as a federal and then a county prosecutor in the Cape Girardeau area since 1997.

She said she'll hold municipal court in Cape Girardeau twice a week and travel here at other times when necessary. "I am not two hours away, I am 40 minutes away," she said.

Price, the current judge, agreed that, with faxes and e-mail, there is no reason why Bright-Pearson can't handle the outside-the-courtroom duties from home. Warrants can be authorized via a fax machine from home, she said.

335-6611, extension 123

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