Judge Russell undertakes ‘Listen, learn, thank’ tour
Judge Mary Rhodes Russell, chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. Contributed photo.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
In her role as Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, Mary Rhodes Russell has set an unprecedented goal. During her two-year tenure, which began July 1, she plans to visit each of the 46 judicial circuits in the state.
Her “listen, learn and thank tour” will also allow her to shake hands with court staff from all across the state, and “thank those employees we have on our front line. Clerks, court reporters, juvenile officers, and other court employees. I ask them what ideas they have and learn how we can improve the judiciary. I take those ideas back to Jefferson City.”
Thus far, with four months under her belt, she has visited eight circuits, with 38 more to go.
“I try to do two a month. People who work in our courts are our heroes and aren’t recognized the way they should be. I want them to see me and know that we appreciate them.”
Traveling around the state “was my idea,” she said, “It’s not required or something a Supreme Court judge has ever done. I want to take the opportunity as the chief justice not to keep the seat warm, instead I want to help improve the judiciary.”
Russell, a Hannibal native, started her career as a law clerk to Judge George Gunn at the Supreme Court of Missouri. A year later, she returned to Hannibal and went into practice with Bob Clayton, who was at the time president of The Missouri Bar.
After about a dozen years, Judge James Reinhard encouraged her to apply for a vacancy on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, on which he was serving. She was a finalist, but wasn’t chosen for that opening. The following year, in 1995 she was appointed to yet another vacancy on the court.
Nearly a decade later, in 2004, she became the third woman in history to be named to the Supreme Court of Missouri.
Russell places great value on education, and strives to do her part in educating the people of the state regarding the judicial branch.
“So many people don’t understand our three branches of government,” she said. “There is a real lack of civic education in our society today. (I hope to) help raise up the shades and open the doors and help our court to be more easily understood. People are always free to come watch our proceedings, in Jefferson City. On our website, you can listen to, live or archived, our proceedings. Everything we do is published on our web page, including our opinions, and the attorneys’ briefs. There is a lot of information about how our courts operate.
“We’re not the top hit on Google searches, but we want to help people understand what we do.”
She obtained her value of education from her roots growing up in Hannibal.
Her story starts with her family. “I was raised by a good family that valued education; they taught me hard work; gave me my moral compass. I had a good education in the Hannibal public schools. You have to tip your hat to wonderful English teachers at Hannibal High School, including Mrs. Ann Maupin, who taught me to never end a sentence with a preposition.
Great grammar and writing skills were taught to us as far back as in Mrs. Pat Aegerter’s sixth grade class at Pettibone. It was crucial to my foundation.”
Technology is perhaps the biggest change she has witnessed during her time with the Missouri courts.
“Technology has had a huge impact on how we conduct our proceedings,” she said. “I had to take my computer from my law office,” she said, when she first joined the Appellate Court, Eastern District in 1995. “They didn’t have any computers for judges yet,” she said, “email wasn’t really in existence at that time.
“Today, all of our pleadings are filed electronically,” she said, “there is a lot less paper than ever before.
“Some proceedings in our trial courts are done remotely, saving clients’ money and time. It is a lot more efficient for litigation.”
Another change she has seen is that “a lot more cases go through mediation and arbitration; the number of civil jury trials has declined by 76 percent statewide from 2000 to last year, she said.
“My opinion is that clients come into their lawyer’s office, and ask ‘how long will it take to resolve the case and how much in attorney fees will it cost me.’ They want to get it over sooner and with less cost; ‘let’s find middle ground and compromise.’
“Criminal jury trials are also down, but not to the degree civil jury trials are statewide,” she said.
A second major change she has witnessed during her career is the number of women in the legal profession.
As a woman who entered the law profession in the 1980s, “I’ve been used to being the only woman at the table or in the room,” she said.
“When I graduated from Law school, there was only one woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It would be another seven years until Ann Covington became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri. Each time a woman joins the Court, it resonates deeply with me.|
On Monday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced his appointment of the Honorable Ginger Gooch to be a Judge on the Supreme Court of Missouri.
By doing so, Judge Gooch became the person to establish the female majority for the Missouri Supreme Court.
To further illustrate the increased numbers of women in the legal profession, she now points to the leadership of the Missouri Bar Association: “The past president, current president, president-
elect, and vice president are all female. All four law schools in Missouri have a majority of female students.
In addition, “A third of the members of the Missouri Bar are now women.”
She is grateful to the men who offered her encouragement during her early years as a lawyer.
“Along the way I’ve had wonderful mentors. People that walked in the shoes I knew I wanted to walk in. A lot of men helped me along the way. My law partner, Bob Clayton, Judge Reinhard, and Judge Cliff Ahrens are three of the many people that believed in me and helped me throughout my career.”
Her current term as Chief Justice is the second for Russell, who first filled this role in 2013-15.
“It is a two-year term,” she said. The seven judges on this Court rotate who leads the Court. I’ve been on the court so long it rotated back to me again.”
As Chief Justice, “You’re the spokesperson for the court. You preside over the dockets, give some major speeches, including, the State of the Judiciary speech, and one to the annual meeting of the Bar and the judiciary. All are formal addresses and are printed and saved in publication.
Also, the Chief Justice is “the face of the court in many instances, the ambassador for the court.” In this role “I try to do a lot of outreach including interacting with our executive and legislative leaders.”
“The chief justice also chairs the commission that screens applicants for vacancies on the courts of appeals and Supreme Court. Three lawyers from around state, three lay people and the Chief Justice review applications for those applying for judgeships, and conduct interviews.”
That commission then “selects the three best qualified people, then gives those three names to the governor. We have been very busy since July 1, three vacancies and a fourth one coming up. It is pretty time consuming.”
She is currently the longest serving justice on the Missouri Supreme Court.