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Bereft of clerk oversight, Favazza sues

St. Louis Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza filed a lawsuit on Monday challenging a decision to put the presiding judge in charge of St. Louis circuit clerks.

Earlier this month, the state Circuit Court Budget Committee voted to recommend the plan offered by St. Louis Circuit Court Presiding Judge David Dowd. Dowd’s plan authorized the presiding judge to appoint clerical employees. Favazza had submitted an alternative proposal that gave him authority over clerks, but it was rejected.
Under the current system, Favazza is supervisor for the clerks in the circuit and associate divisions. Clerks who work in probate court fall under the probate judge.

The plan approved by the budget committee puts the presiding judge in charge of St. Louis clerks, including hiring and firing decisions, but allows for the circuit clerk to remain the day-to-day supervisor. Decisions would be made possible by the presiding judge, the division judge and the circuit clerk working together.

The lawsuit was filed against the members of the Circuit Court Budget Committee. St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer, chairman of the budget committee, said the lawsuit was not a surprise but declined to comment further. Ohmer said the lawsuit had been turned over to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is handling it on the committee’s behalf.

The lawsuit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court by Favazza and two St. Louis residents, alleges that the committee is violating sections of the Missouri Constitution which impose the duties and responsibilities of the St. Louis circuit clerk. Those duties, functions and responsibilities cannot be delegated or transferred to another unless authorized by statute, the petition said.

“If you’re taking away my employment authority, you’re taking away my authority of office,” Favazza said at a press conference on Monday. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that [workers] pay more attention to who can hire and fire them.”

Favazza said that the decision to make the presiding judge the appointing authority over the circuit clerks was a result of failed attempts to have his position of circuit clerk be appointed. Favazza cited a legislative proposal last session and a 2004 ballot proposition, which both failed to make the position appointed.

“When they were given this mandate by the Supreme Court, they were given the opportunity of all opportunities,” Favazza said. “They’re trying to use a state budget process to do what can’t be done to change a constitutional process.”

Favazza said he gave the court and the state notice last week that he would file the lawsuit. At a hearing before Cole County Judge Richard Callahan on Monday, the defense agreed to not implement any personnel changes immediately. A hearing has been set for Jan. 15 on Favazza’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the consolidation from taking place. Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the office would present its arguments at that time.

The move to consolidate authority came in October after the Missouri Supreme Court told all counties to pick one appointing authority to oversee its courtroom clerks by Jan. 1.

The case is Mariano Favazza et al. v. Steven R. Ohmer et al., 09AC-CC00745.