The City of Kansas City, Missouri, has to pay $2.1 million to a white lady who wanted to be judge.
Melissa Howard sued the city after the City Council rejected a slate of prospective Municipal Court judges because they were all white. Howard, who was on the slate, said it was discrimination. A Platte County jury awarded her $2.1 million in damages, and now the state's highest court says she is entitled to the money.
The city needed to hire a new Municipal Court judge when Marcia Walsh retired on August 31, 2006. Filling vacancies is a two-step process. First, a five-person Judicial Nominating Commission screens candidates. The council then votes on the finalists.
The commission came up with three names to fill Walsh's spot. All were white women. (Walsh is white.)
The panel was criticized by Gwen Grant, the president of the Urban League, and the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, one of two mayoral appointees on the nominating commission. During a public meeting, Councilman Terry Riley, who is black, said his colleagues should reject the panel if they wanted to say they supported diversity and equality. "Remember that there's elections coming up," he said.
The council voted 7-6 to ask for a new slate. Howard, who had worked as an assistant prosecutor in Clay and Jackson counties, was bumped for a black man, Ardie Bland. The job ended up going to Katherine Emke, who was on the original slate. (Bland was appointed to fill a subsequent vacancy.)
There was no question that race cost Howard her spot. The question that her lawsuit posed is whether the political nature of the selection process and the job itself trumped the Missouri Human Rights Act.
The city, it should be noted, had been warned that asking for a new panel was against the law. The president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association, Patrick McLarney, told City Attorney Galen Beaufort that the council had erred. "No one is against diversity," McLarney wrote in an e-mail, "but we all have to follow the law." Beaufort rejected the advice and gave the council the OK to ask for a new slate.
In court, the city's lawyers argued that a Municipal Court judge is a public official, a status more akin to being an independent contractor than a traditional employee. The argument has merit. Municipal Court judges stand for election after they're appointed. They do not answer to the city manager or to the council.
In fact, they do as they please. Judges John B. Williams and Mike McAdam, for instance, travel regularly -- on the city's dime -- to judicial conferences that seem more like vacations than meaningful attempts at continuing education. One conference was held in Maui.
Alas, the Missouri Supreme Court took the position that Municipal Court judges deserve the same protections afforded to midlevel bureaucrats in the Water Services Department. But it's hard to imagine that many of them have been reimbursed for flights to Hawaii.