In 1846, Dred Scott began his infamous legal battle in what is now called the “Old Courthouse” in downtown St. Louis. Scott had traveled with his master from Missouri to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, neither of which recognized slavery. Having lived for an extended period in free territory, Scott argued that state law supported his claim to freedom. But the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed. The court’s message to Scott was clear: Perhaps you can live freely elsewhere, but not here.
More than a century and a half later, the St. Louis region continues to distinguish itself as one that is hostile to its poor black residents. Since the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014, St. Louis and its neighboring municipalities have been frequently cited for legal and moral failings in the region’s municipal justice system. A report released by the Department of Justice last year profiled these failings in great detail, as did a white paper released by the local nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders in 2014. (Blake Strode, one of the coauthors of this story, is currently on staff at ArchCity Defenders.)
More recently, the Department of Justice filed suit against the City of Ferguson after the city council rejected a proposed settlement that sought to bring reforms to the police department and municipal court. The lawsuit outlines myriad constitutional civil-rights claims ranging from violations of Equal Protection and Due Process to patterns of unlawful arrest and excessive force. Some of these claims focus on the city’s court, detention, and bail practices, claims similar to those already pending against Ferguson in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by ArchCity Defenders, St. Louis University Law Clinic, and the civil-rights organization Equal Justice Under Law.