This report is part 19 of an investigative series looking into reported corruption in the Missouri Judiciary and family courts. For the rest of the investigation visit the catalog here.
On Wednesday, Judge Michael Burton announced his resignation from the 21st Judicial Circuit Court during a public town hall session about relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in the county. In a response to a question posed by PJ Media in the town hall chat, Burton announced that the rumors we heard were true. He is leaving the bench this August.
Burton has been under fire for an email he wrote that contained ex-parte communication about a lawsuit Evita Tolu filed against court professionals in the 21st district. The lawsuit alleges that court professionals purposefully drained her finances and gave her children to their alleged abuser. That lawsuit was recently dismissed without the evidence being heard and all the defendants appointed by the 21st Circuit were given “quasi-judicial immunity,” meaning that even if everything alleged in the lawsuit is true, they can’t be held accountable. Tolu is filing an appeal soon, and several activists in Missouri are working on legislation to remove immunity from judicial agents.
In the damning email, Burton unwisely wrote to guardian ad litem Sarah Pleban, asking her to forward the email to all her guardian friends.
Sarah: Are you aware of the meeting that I am holding with leaders from the bar orgs re this? Here is the email that I sent out to them last week. They are all on board. I don’t want to get into a meeting with Elaine or anyone else involved in any lawsuits. Feel free to share this with the GALs that have responded and all that you trust… Might you be interested in joining the meeting? (I just don’t want to open this to everyone…)
Hello all. As I or Judge Hemphill have told you, some concerning allegations about our domestic family court have been making their way on the internet. Lots of horrible charges against GALs, custody experts and judges, insinuating that such folks are on the take, making recommendations that are not in the best interest of the children involved, but rather, on the basis of cash payments. The source of these scurrilous claims is unclear. Could be one or a few jilted parents, upset about the courts’ custody orders. I am attaching some passages from what is referred to as the “Daily Docket.” (See the first attachment and the Daily Dockets’ passages below.)
As a judge who has presided over many family cases, I have had extensive personal experience with many of the GALs who have been brought into this web of lies. The ones that I know are great people and zealous advocates for their young clients. Some of them are now judges. Logic dictates that when I have seen the good work of a GAL, that person will be on my mind as a prospective candidate for another case. In many instances, it is hard to get new GALs involved because of the reluctance that we have in the unknown. Indeed, it is not bad practice to appoint a limited number of attorneys as GALs. In many instances, the parents’ attorneys will agree on a GAL — and as the judge in those circumstances, I rarely questioned their request. The attorneys always want independent, diligent, responsible and compassionate GALs. Luckily for us in this County, we have plenty of good GALs who can be described in that fashion.
Hands down, the family court assignment is the most challenging: very stressful circumstances with parties acting in ways that are far from their best. These are also understandably the most toxic cases. Many parents cannot accept that their behaviors could be the basis for their not getting the custody arrangements that they had desired. And when a custody expert and/or a GAL makes a recommendation that the other party gets more time and/or rights regarding their children, many people get unhinged, blaming everyone but themselves (including the judges who had the audacity to follow the aforementioned recommendations). Because of the gossip printed in these dockets, some former litigants have started reaching out (anonymously of course) to anyone who files a case in the Family Court. How they get information from these generally inaccessible files is unclear to me.) They spread the garbage about certain GALs and experts to these litigants — and some choose to believe what is being told to them.
Eventually, at some point, a civil lawsuit was filed in this circuit. Please see the second attachment. The matter is pending before one of our circuit court judges. I have never spoken to him about this case or about the contents of the Daily Docket — and I do not plan to do so. As judges, we cannot comment to the public about litigation that is pending on our dockets. Further, we are not advised to comment to the public about the pending cases of other judges in our circuit. That being said, Judge Hemphill and I thought that we could reach out to some leaders of the bar to discuss this problem. We want to be proactive in some way. The ability of anonymous trolls to harm people’s reputations is very troublesome. To be clear, I do not want to discuss with you the merits or the content of the pending lawsuit. We want to discuss the drivel in these “Daily Dockets.” We would like to meet with you via Zoom/WebEx in the near future to brainstorm. Late in the afternoon works best for us. Please let me know if you could meet at 4:00 next week (January 25 through January 29) or the following week (February 1 through 5). Please include anyone who you think would be helpful to the discussion from your bar organization. Thanks so much. I really appreciate any help you can offer. Have a great, peaceful Inauguration Day! Mike B
While Burton claimed he wasn’t going to talk about the pending litigation but only about “the drivel in these ‘Daily Dockets,'” an anonymous newsletter, the information in the newsletter is exactly what Evita Tolu’s lawsuit was about. The “web of lies,” as he called it, mirrored most of the allegations in the lawsuit that was reported on in the Daily Docket newsletter. This email was a clear violation of the judge’s code of conduct to not communicate ex-parte about cases in front of his court and the email also constitutes good evidence that judges, attorneys, and guardians in St. Louis and even the entire Bar of Missouri are colluding together against the parents in family court as the lawsuit alleged. Burton even called the parents in his court “unhinged” and “toxic.” If that’s his idea of being unbiased, we need to change the dictionary definition of the word.
This email led to the recusal of all 31 judges on the 21st Circuit Court. It was bad enough that the entire court was conflicted because of this lawsuit in perhaps the largest recusal in American history (I haven’t found one bigger), yet Judge Burton resigned from the bench without mentioning the outrageous scandal he caused. Not one St. Louis press outlet has ever covered this email or the massive recusal that followed it.
Joel Currier at the St. Louis Dispatch did, however, write a nice send-off to Judge Burton announcing that he’s even leaving the state to take a leadership class at Notre Dame in Indiana.
Burton, who turns 61 on Sunday, said he is stepping down after 22 years as a St. Louis County circuit judge for a one-year leadership program at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater, for people further along in their careers.
Currier did not mention the roiling scandal Burton presided over for the last several months, nor did he ask him if it had anything to do with his abrupt departure. Apparently, we are to believe that Burton just decided he didn’t want to be a judge anymore.
Burton will give up an annual salary of at least $171,000 to join the self-exploration program, which costs an estimated $53,000 per participant. He was appointed to the circuit bench in 1999 by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. He became presiding judge for the 21st Circuit in March 2020.
“I looked at the fact that I’ve been on the bench a considerable time and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities that I feel I’ve really been fortunate to have,” Burton said. “And I kept thinking in the back of my head that I wanted to do something different, but I really wasn’t able to figure out for sure what that would be.”
Farewell, Judge Burton. The “toxic” and “unhinged” parents suffering in the family courts of Missouri will not miss you.