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.

The admonition fell on deaf ears.

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

Assistant Presiding Circuit Court Judge Michael David: "It is fair to say that there has been a strained relationship between the clerk's office and the court for a long time."
Jennifer Silverberg
Assistant Presiding Circuit Court Judge Michael David: "It is fair to say that there has been a strained relationship between the clerk's office and the court for a long time."

Political infighting has been part and parcel of how the Circuit Court operates, but under Favazza, it's reached a new crescendo.

Historically, the circuit clerk's office was a job for influential city politicians. The clerk controls about 200 patronage jobs, and the office's primary mission long has seemed to be paying off political debt or racking up favors -- not necessarily helping the judges.

Political heavyweights have ruled the roost. Joseph P. Roddy, the longtime boss of the 17th Ward and father of the ward's current alderman, Joe Roddy, held the clerk's job from 1968 until 1982, when he was ousted by Freeman Bosley Jr., son of another alderman. When Bosley was elected the city's first African-American mayor, Mavis Thompson, Bosley's handpicked successor with the backing of many women's groups, was chosen by Gov. Mel Carnahan to finish the term. She was elected in 1994.

Despite changes in administrations, the courthouse gained a reputation for surly service, lost documents and inexcusable delays. Child-support checks got lost or were slow to reach single parents; kicking out deadbeat or drug-dealing tenants after a landlord got a signed order could take six weeks or more; two or more cases were often mixed up in the same file.

And during the 1990s, the clerk's office was rocked by financial scandals. Money was missing from the Traffic Violations Bureau, from the Criminal Bond Section, from bookkeeping.

Struggling to work in a broken system, the judges tried to distance themselves from corruption and inefficiency. An invisible line between the clerk and the bench was drawn.

But many of the judges saw a light at the end of the long, dark, miserable tunnel when Favazza ran for office. He told voters that the circuit clerk should be appointed by the judges, not elected. That's the way it is in St. Louis and Jackson counties.

Robert St. Vrain, a former federal and state court clerk who reviewed Favazza's office, says, "Some of the judges maybe jumped the gun and assumed he would -- I wouldn't say 'do their bidding' -- but would just come in and follow orders."

But Favazza wasn't about to follow orders.

"I guess he did not react too well to the way that some of the judges were treating him," St. Vrain says.

When it became clear that Favazza was going to be his own boss, the judges' optimism turned to bitterness, and the feuding between the two factions not only resumed but intensified and became personal.

"He looks like he's the merry wanderer, this kind of clownish figure, but he's not. He's mean," says one judge, who spoke for background. "He uses every fucking trick in the book. He goes from threats to 'woe is me' to confusion; he uses everything."

Favazza's heard the criticism and insists he's unaffected.

"Every day I apply a simple test -- the 'man in the mirror' test," he says. "At the end of the day, I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons. I haven't failed the test yet."

Favazza had been in the office only for a year when he invited St. Vrain to fill out a report card on his progress.

St. Vrain is well known and respected in the legal community. A lawyer, he has served as appointed clerk for the federal court system, both in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Before that, he was the clerk for the Missouri Court of Appeals' Eastern District. St. Vrain took early retirement in 1999 and now spends much of his time in Bosnia and Croatia -- advising judges on how to set up their courthouses.

But St. Vrain found that he couldn't evaluate the circuit clerk in isolation. "I see the court as one entity, not the judges and the clerk's office as separate competing entities," he wrote in his report.

And as he interviewed clerk staff, judges and lawyers, one theme came up over and over again: The competition between the clerk and the judges had resulted in what he described as "fragmentation and divergence" in the courthouse.

"To the extent that mutual wariness and sparring have evolved over the years between two different camps, the effective administration of justice is impeded and case management suffers," he wrote.

He laid the blame at the feet of both the judges and the clerk.

Favazza "is like a bull in a china shop," St. Vrain says. "I think he is well intentioned, but if there is not some effort to work with the judges, you're never going to have a smooth-running court."

On the other hand, he says, "I think there are a number of judges who want all the benefits but don't want to stick around late in the afternoon or come in early for meetings on a regular basis and do the follow-up work that is required to get problems addressed and resolved.

"You've got some very intelligent judges, some very dedicated judges; you've got some judges who" -- St. Vrain pauses -- "they have a very, very, I would say, limited perspective, and they tend to be almost paranoid when it comes to oversight or scrutiny."

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