Judges pass out nearly $3 million

Friday, December 13, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Two capital city judges passed out nearly $3 million in surprise gifts Thursday to government and nonprofit groups, disbursing all that remained in four funds from old court cases at the encouragement of the state Supreme Court.

The money distributed by Cole County Circuit judges Thomas Brown and Byron Kinder had been held by the judges for years -- in some cases, decades -- because no one had come forward to claim it.

State Treasurer Nancy Farmer had sued the judges to get the money transferred to the state's unclaimed property division.

In a ruling two weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld the judges' right to control the money and declared the state treasurer had no power to enforce collection of unclaimed property.

But some Supreme Court judges expressed surprise during the case's arguments that Brown and Kinder were still holding onto the money.

"The Supreme Court's decision gave us the encouragement we needed to go ahead and distribute the money," said Brown, who oversaw two of the old court cases. Kinder oversaw the other two.

The money came from two cases involving over-collection from customers of Southwest Bell Telephone Co., the insolvency of the Old Security Life Insurance Co. and surcharges imposed in the 1970s by several utility companies.

Cole County windfall

Of the nearly $3 million distributed by the judges, more than $1.8 million was given to Cole County, primarily for the "administration of justice," which could include law enforcement or court administration.

The judges said they hoped some of the money would be used for a new courthouse elevator accessible to the disabled.

The judges gave $700,000 to The Missouri Bar to be used statewide to help pay the legal expenses of the poor. They gave another $50,000 to the Samaritan Center in Jefferson City for civil legal services for the poor.

Checks for $100,000 each went to the Boys and Girls Club of the Capital City, the Jefferson City Public School Foundation and Service Dogs Today Inc., which trains dogs to assist people with physical needs.

Another $50,000 each was given to the Rape and Abuse Crises Service Foundation in Jefferson City and the Prenger Family Center in Jefferson City to replace vehicles and furniture for the benefit of juveniles in custody or treatment programs.

Besides legal aid for the indigent, most of the money will stay in the Jefferson City area. Kinder said that was appropriate because Cole County courts handle most cases involving state government and the state does not pay property taxes to support local government and institutions.

"By providing support for the administration of justice here, we are in effect providing a statewide benefit," Brown added, "because so many matters of statewide interest and of a statewide nature come before this court, whether it's prisoners from the Department of Corrections, or state agency disputes, or constitutional challenges to statutes or all the other things."

Before Thursday's final payout, the judges said they had directed about $3 million in interest from the court funds to be paid to Cole County over the years. Some of that money was used for courthouse improvements.

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