Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In re Finnegan[1]

Opinion handed down December 21, 2010
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri rejected a recommendation that a family court commissioner be made to retire because the recommending commission lacked the authority to do so. The court ruled that the Commission on Retirement, Removal, and Discipline only had authority to make decisions regarding judges, members of judicial commissions, and members of the commission itself.

I. Facts and Holding

April 2010, Timothy J. Finnegan, “family court commissioner for the Circuit Court of St. Louis City,” petitioned the Commission on Retirement, Removal, and Discipline (the Commission) to retire him.[2] The Commission investigated his request and found that he was incapable of performing his duties due to disability.[3] The Commission issued findings of fact and law recommending to the Supreme Court of Missouri that he be granted retirement with disability benefits.[4]

II. Legal Background

In order to determine whether the court should accept the Commission’s recommendation for Finnegan, the court first decided whether the Commission had authority over family court commissioners.[5] Article V, section 24 of the Missouri Constitution mandates that the scope of the Commission’s authority is limited to judges, judicial committee members, and members of the Commission itself.[6] Mr. Finnegan was not a member of the Commission itself.[7] Thus, the court only needed to determine if he was a judge or member of a judicial commission as defined by Missouri law.[8]

In order to determine if Finnegan was a judge, the court considered their ruling in Slay v. Slay.[9] In Slay, the court held that a family court commissioner’s signed documents are not true “judgments” because only documents signed by a judge could be considered as such.[10] The court then found that only judicial officers who are selected and authorized to serve by Article V of the Missouri Constitution garner the title of judge.[11] Because family court commissioners are not selected according to the mandates of Article V, they are not judges and thus the Commission does not have authority over them.[12]

Next, the court considered whether Finnegan was a member of a judicial commission.[13] Using the plain meaning of the term “commission,” the court found that this term refers to “a group or body that performs some delegated public function.”[14] Applying this meaning to “member of a judicial commission,” the court reasoned that such a member would be a part of a “group or body.”[15] Because family court commissioners do not perform their tasks as members of a group or body, such commissioners are not members of a judicial commission.[16] Thus, they are not subject to the scope of the Commission’s authority.[17]

While the Commission did not have the authority to recommend disability retirement, the court found that Finnegan was eligible for retirement under other Missouri statutes.[18] Section 487.020.3 entitles a commissioner to retirement benefits equal to that of an associate circuit judge, and section 104.518.1 provides that some state employees including “‘any person who has served . . . as commissioner or deputy commissioner of the circuit court . . .’” are eligible for disability retirement benefits.[19] Thus, Finnegan would be eligible for long term disability benefits despite the fact that the Commission had no authority to recommend his retirement.[20]

The court concluded that, because Finnegan was neither a judge nor a judicial commissioner, the Commission did not have the authority to recommend his retirement and denied the recommendation.[21]

In a concurring opinion, Judge Wolff reiterated that commissioners like Finnegan had no constitutional authority to exercise judicial power and suggested that this was a good reason to phase them out.[22] After the voter-approved amendment to the Missouri Constitution, Article V, passed in 1976, only judges selected by a non-partisan committee or elected by popular vote have judicial powers.[23] Commissioners like Finnegan are selected by the circuit court judge where they serve.[24] They perform most of the functions of judges but do not sign judgments or preside over cases other than those they were appointed to hear.[25] Because commissioners like Finnegan are appointed by circuit court judges where they serve, they do not qualify as judges with judicial powers under Article V.[26] Thus, they do not have constitutional authority to exercise judicial powers.[27]

While recognizing the dedication and service of the individual commissioners, Wolff suggested that family court commissioners and judicial officers should be phased out through voluntary retirement without being replaced by the Supreme Court.[28] If the particular circuit court needs continued assistance with its judicial workload, he suggested that the legislature could then create a new judge for that circuit pursuant to the requirements of the Missouri Constitution.[29]

III. Comment

As constitutional issues go, this one seems quite minor. Nonetheless, maintaining circuit court commissioners who perform judicial functions, but are not endowed with the judicial powers of other Article V judicial officers, seems to be an issue that should be resolved by the government body most capable of doing so. In Finnegan, Judge Wolff suggested that the judiciary use its power to encourage the legislature to act on this issue.[30] Barring legislative action to create a statutory solution for phasing out these circuit court commissioners, one would have to guess that Judge Wolff’s suggestion will lead the way on this issue. Either way, Finnegan suggests that commissioners increasingly will be replaced with judges in the coming years.

- Ronald K. Rowe II

[1] 327 S.W.3d 524 (Mo. 2010) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 525.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 526.
[8] Id.
[9] Id. (citing 965 S.W.2d 845 (Mo. 1998) (en banc)).
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. (citing Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 457 (1993)).
[15] Id. at 527.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id. (quoting Mo. Rev. Stat. § 476.515.1(4)).
[20] Id. The attorney general argued that removal of a commissioner is a responsibility held by the circuit judges who appoint and supervise them. Brief of Appellant at *14-15. As such, the circuit judges under whom Finnegan served would be the correct authority to recommend his removal. Id.
[21] 327 S.W.3d at 527.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at 529.
[24] Id.
[25] Id. at 530.
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at 527, 531-32.
[29] Id. at 532.
[30] Id. at 531-32.