Judging Mariano

The circuit clerk and the city's judges square off on the public's right to know. The clerk and the public are losing.

Mariano Favazza isn't the kind of guy who takes no for an answer.

Take the time St. Louis University rejected his law school application: The McDonald's manager-turned-butcher talked his way into a meeting with the head of the admissions committee and gave him a million reasons SLU had goofed. Tenacious as a bulldog, Mariano Favazza won the argument. Three years later, at the age of 38, Favazza graduated with honors.

Then there was the race in 1998 for circuit clerk. The city's Democratic establishment lined up behind incumbent Mavis Thompson, but Favazza didn't care. On a shoestring budget and with most of his eight kids pressed into door-to-door campaigning, Favazza again defied the odds -- and won.

Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."
Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."

So when Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza decided it was time to bring his notoriously inefficient, patronage-packed office into the 21st century and put criminal cases on the Internet, he didn't weigh the potential opposition -- he just charged forward, full speed ahead.

After all, Favazza is the caretaker of public court records, so why not make it easier for the public to see them?

"I thought, 'Gee! This is something my office ought to do,'" Favazza says.

Right now, those with an itch to read case files in Circuit Court must trek to the hulking gray courthouse at the northeast corner of Market Street and Tucker Boulevard, scout for parking, pass through metal detectors, crowd onto a creaky elevator, get off at the third-floor file room and then wait.

And wait.

And wait -- for the single computer terminal available to the public (five minutes per person, please) or for assistance from a low-paid, overworked records clerk.

Putting case information on the Internet -- something that more and more courts are doing -- seemed like the ideal way to serve the public.

Favazza didn't just want to list the records by case numbers and defendants' names -- most people don't know that information, he reasoned.

He wanted to make the information searchable by neighborhood. That way, residents of, say, Hyde Park, Carondelet or Forest Park Southeast could find out what happened to cases originating near their homes. Were the crackheads up the street convicted -- and are they behind bars? Did the slumlord around the corner get a slap on the wrist? Was the mugger carted off to jail?

So in January, Favazza called the Regional Justice Information Service, the central records clearinghouse that serves the metropolitan area's dozens of law-enforcement agencies, and asked for help developing neighborhood codes for the city.

It was a simple enough request.

And less than two months later, with REJIS's assistance and an expenditure of about $10,000, Favazza was ready to announce that his office -- which serves one of the largest state court circuits in Missouri -- was ready to go live on the World Wide Web.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the press conference:

Just days before he was set to make the announcement, Presiding Circuit Court Judge Margaret Neill asked Favazza for a few days to review his plans.

Then, without telling Favazza, Neill fired off a letter on behalf of the St. Louis Circuit's 31 judges to REJIS, ordering the agency not to comply with the clerk's request. "The Web site," she wrote in a letter dated March 4, "is not to be activated for public access without the presiding judge's express written approval of all information contained in the Web site."

Neill cited a state Supreme Court operating rule that lists the information available on the Internet. Neighborhood codes aren't listed in the rule -- but they aren't banned, either.

Judging from what some lawyers and even a few judges say, the real issue had more to do with politics than with the law. They say the judges didn't want public scrutiny.

Mariano Favazza, a guy some liken to a bull in a china shop, was going to make it easier for the public to figure out who's working hard and who's not; who's handing out tough sentences and who isn't. Although Circuit Court judges are appointed by the governor, they stand for re-election, and bad publicity could hurt their chances of keeping their $108,000-a-year jobs.

Neill wasn't available for comment, but Assistant Presiding Judge Michael David defends the judges' position:

"If someone were to come in to look at a court file, which they are free to do, there is a question as to how much they understand. I think the concern of the bench is that incomplete or inaccurate information can do a greater disservice than no information."

There has been strain between the judges and Favazza since he took office, but in the weeks since the aborted press conference, things have gone from bad to worse.

Some judges have accused Favazza of playing fast and loose with his budget; some are pushing for legislation that would effectively strip him of his office.

The tension was palpable last week at a meeting between the judges and the clerk, where Favazza -- an elected official -- was dressed down.

Judge Robert Dierker Jr. didn't mince words about who he thought should be in charge: "The court serves the public and the clerk, while elected, is subordinate to the court and serves the policies of the court."

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