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Wilson delivers final speech to lawmakers

Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson greets members of the Missouri General Assembly

Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson greets members of the Missouri General Assembly at the annual State of the Judiciary speech Feb. 8. (Photo by Scott Lauck)

Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson used his final official appearance before the full Missouri General Assembly to offer a plea for funding, a paean for the rule of law and a prayer for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Wilson, whose two-year term as the court system’s top administrator ends June 30, delivered the annual state of the judiciary speech to a joint session of the Missouri House and Senate on Feb. 8. It came exactly 11 months after last year’s speech, which had been delayed by a month after the Senate went into an all-night debate on redrawing Missouri’s congressional map.

Speaking to a potentially less contentious legislature, Wilson urged lawmakers to pass a cost-of-living pay raise that Gov. Mike Parson has proposed for state employees, including those working for the courts.

Court employees, Wilson said, “understand the importance of the work they do, but having pride in what you do just won’t fill the gas tank or pay for child care, and it sure doesn’t buy any groceries.”

Wilson also supported additional funding for overtime for court clerks dealing with the “unprecedented obligations” of Amendment 3, which voters approved last November to allow adults to use cannabis recreationally and to automatically expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.

Parson’s proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year includes $4.54 million in funding for the Office of State Courts Administrator and the state’s circuit courts to accomplish those expungements, as well as $2.47 million to be used for similar purposes during the current fiscal year. The final budget must be passed by May 5.

Wilson also asked lawmakers to renew the $7 filing fee that funds the state’s court automation system. Noting that the fee has never been raised in 30 years, he called it an “essential part of the funding for an essential part of our work.”

“I urge you — actually, I’m begging you — to renew it this session,” he said. Versions of the bill have been filed in both chambers.

He also supported filed legislation that would protect judges’ private information to prevent them from facing threats and violence. A version of the bill has been heard in a House committee and passed a Senate committee.

“We owe it to those who serve in Missouri’s judiciary not to wait until we learn — in the worst possible way — that we waited too long, and did too little,” he said.

Wilson ended by noting that two members of the court — Judges Patricia Breckenridge and George W. Draper III — will retire this year. Both reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 this year, though they have not announced exactly when they’ll retire.

“The courts have benefitted immeasurably from their work, and we will miss them dearly,” Wilson said.

Breckenridge didn’t attend the speech, but Draper and the other four members of the Supreme Court were there. Wilson’s comments prompted a standing ovation for Draper, who stood, waved — and quickly urged everyone to sit down.

But it was clear that the lawmakers’ favorite line of the speech was its last. Speaking just days before the Chiefs play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, Wilson said: “may God bless Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle!”