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Behind the bench: Q&A with Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mary Rhodes Russell

Mary Rhodes Russell began her two-year term as Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court in July. The Missouri Times sat down with Russell for a Q&A about her background, her thoughts about the office, as well as her ideas for improving Missouri’s court system. 

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Reischman: At what point in your career did you choose to make the transition from lawyer to judge and what spurned that change?

Russell: It’s not been a lifelong dream, by any stretch. My first job out of law school was in 1983 here as a law clerk, and back then there were no females on the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals. There were maybe a handful in the circuit courts and so in those days it wasn’t something I aspired to or dreamed of because it simply wasn’t dreamable for a girl to be a judge.

Mary Rhodes Russell
Mary Rhodes Russell

I was perfectly content with the idea of moving back to my hometown of Hannibal, Mo., and being a good girl and just practicing law. It wasn’t until the early nineties, when there was a lot of interest in putting more women on the bench. There was a notice of the lack of diversity on the bench. And some of the current judges on the Eastern District Court of Appeals in the St. Louis region approached me about applying. I didn’t know much about how that process worked and didn’t think a girl from Hannibal could compete with big name lawyers from St. Louis. But of course I was interested and I tried and the rest, I guess, is history.

CR: Can you discuss a case or an issue you either heard or worked on as an attorney that affected you in a strong way?

MRR: As a practicing attorney, you saw the people that you helped. At least in my practice, I represented people. We didn’t have a lot of businesses but it was small, Ma and Pa or individuals. People came to your office because they were scared or worried and needed help.

I felt like I succeeded when a client walked out of my office and said, “Thank you. I feel better now, I understand my legal rights and responsibilities.” Fear of the unknown is powerful and when you could resolve the case for someone, the appreciation a client had you got to experience first hand. Sometimes, in a small town, you didn’t get paid in dollars. I once had goat’s milk as payment or a bouquet of flowers or a handmade Christmas ornament, which I also got from a client.

Most people go to law school because they want to help people resolve problems. As a judge, you don’t have that same satisfaction. You don’t have a client, you don’t have parties in a lawsuit or [anything to that] effect. The warm and fuzzies that your clients give you don’t exist on the bench. Being a judge isn’t exactly the happiness business.

Fifty percent of the people think you made the wrong decision and those that did win still probably think they paid their lawyers too much, so we don’t really work in the happiness business.

CR: What’s a fundamental misunderstanding or mischaracterization of this court that you’d like to change?

MRR: People think we just work at the same time period as the legislature, from January to May. That’s not true. Our cases are heard primarily between September and May, kind of like a school year. But all summer long it’s not a vacation. We finish up opinions we’re assigned to write. We have applications that have to be ruled upon, we do a lot of public speaking and attend a lot of Bar meetings.

I’ve played golf on a Saturday once this whole summer and I’ve not been to the pool once and I’m starting to feel like the summer is slipping away from me. That’s a big myth — our summers are not off.

The other big myth is that people think that our [judicial] opinions are our personal feelings. That’s not true. We take an oath to follow the law and the constitution. We interpret the statutes as written by the legislature and the constitution as written by the people. We legally cannot change the wording in the statutes or the constitution. We have to interpret the words as they are written by those respective groups. Legally, we have to follow the law.

CR: Judges are appointed in Missouri but must be selected on the ballot for retention by their constituents. As judges are barred from campaigning, how does a voter find out about you and whether or not you should be their judge if you can’t traditionally campaign?

MRR: Your record speaks for itself. There is a lot of information today that is much easier to access through the Internet. All of our opinions are online. They can read those opinions and get a gist of our writing.

The Missouri Bar also has a performance evaluation committee with both lawyers and private citizens. They will review opinions, they will interview people that work with a judge, and they’ll even sit in a courtroom and watch the judge in action. They post that evaluation on their website. That information is then available for the public to see how the committee rates that judge. If it’s a trial court judge, jurors will be questioned to ask how the judge handled the trial.

In some states, they spend the money to actually mail those evaluations to registered voters. We unfortunately don’t have the funding for that here, but it would be great if it were an option.

CR: Do women bring a different perspective to the court than men?

MRR: I think we all have a different background. Everybody walks in different shoes. I’ve lived in a rural area and I’ve lived in an urban area. I think it’s important for the courts to look like the people they represent. I think that if the courts don’t have diversity we lose our strength.

It makes for a stronger court. If we were all cut out of the same cookie cutter then why would we have seven judges [on the Missouri Supreme Court]? One would be enough.

CR: You’ve discussed the importance of specialty courts, like drug courts. Why are drug courts important?

MRR: Historically, before we had drug courts, someone charged with a substance abuse crime was likely to be sent to prison. There was no treatment while in prison to help them beat the addiction and they came back out of prison and repeated their offense because they had not been treated while they were incarcerated. We were just building more prisons and spending more money on people who could be treated.

Drug courts are designed not to work with the heinous distributor of drugs. It’s the person who, potentially, it’s their first offense, and someone who has acknowledged that they have a problem and they want to become a productive member of society. They just need a little help. The public is now looking at courts and judges to help solve some of the societal problems. We call these “problem-solving courts,” and these will help people get back on the right path. We have more drug courts per capita than any other state in the country and we are very proud of that.

CR; Does Missouri value its court system, and is that value reflected in your resources, or do you feel that judicial resources in Missouri are left undervalued/underfunded?

MRR: There are a lot of things we’d like to do to make the courts better and more responsive and accessible to people. But in these tough times, we understand we have to take our fair share of budget reductions or maybe not receive the increases we’d like to have. There are many programs we’d like to establish, but the funds aren’t there. We’ve been treated fairly and we anticipate continued respectful treatment.

We’re a very small part of the state budget. Our clerks and staff have learned to do more with less and we’re taking it in stride and when revenues increase we’ll be glad to get that additional funding.

My theme and the theme of the judges that follow me will be “how can we make the courts work better for all citizens?”

CR: What qualities do you need to have to leave a mark on the court? 

MRR: Being the Chief Justice doesn’t give me anymore power. There are still seven of us and I have one vote. We tease each other around here; it’s the rule of four. It takes four votes to change something, whether it’s an opinion or a parking space or what’s on the lunch menu [laughs] it will always take four votes.

People think the Chief Justice can change the world and nothing is further from the truth. Interpersonal skills are important, organizational skills are important. I don’t want the two years to go by without it being a little better than when I came. You can’t get all your ideas accomplished in two years.

I’m working with the next two people in line to be Chief Justice, Judge Breckenridge and Judge Fischer. We’re trying to agree on some projects that we would all work on for a six-year period. Specialty courts, as we discussed, is one of them. We’re trying to meet the needs society wants, trying to be problem solvers.

We want to conduct surveys of people using our courts. Let them be the judge for a while, if you will. We’ll ask them if they had issues getting access to the courts, or if they had any procedural unfairness while in court — not necessarily outcome based, but things like: were you able to get to court? How were you treated once you were there? Are there barriers or impediments to getting to court? Our primary goal as judges is to resolve people’s problems timely and fair and in a form where everybody has access.

We’re also expanding our e-filing system. That’s something that if we had the money we’d have finished by now or at least be doing it at a quicker rate. Right now, this Court has had it for a few years. All three appeals districts have e-filing, about 11 of our circuit courts have e-filing. We’re trying to add a total of 25 counties in this next year. It’s another cost saver, less paper and storage. Some of our rural courthouses have outrageous outside storage bills and have floors buckling under the old files. We’re just trying to catch up in places where private industry has been for years.

CR: A little off topic: If you weren’t a judge, what other line of work do you think you’d like to try? 

MRR: I started as a journalist and I really wanted to be like a consumer affairs reporter to investigate fraud and help people who’d been taken advantage of. I also had an interest in elderly people — it was an area of the law I enjoyed.

[Laughs] I would really like to be a sports agent, too! I could just be happy being an usher at the Cardinals games, I might consider that for retirement.

CR: What piece of advice do you wish you had gotten as a young person interested in the law?

MRR: I grew up in the tradition of the times. I wish I’d had more exposure to different people in different walks of life. My dad was a farmer and my mother was a housewife. And because my dad was the only driver in the family, everything we did was within a two-hour circumference of Hannibal. I had kind of a limited sphere of knowledge. I had a limited perspective.

I’ve been fortunate since then to live in a metropolitan area. I know the difference between a septic tank on a farm and MSD in Saint Louis. I understand a little bit of the different walks of life of people living around the state.

I’ve been all over the state, I’ve spoken all over the state. A lot of towns I’ve been to say they’ve never met a Supreme Court justice before. I take a message of basic civic education.

We need to help people understand how the constitution is there to protect them, what their constitutional rights and responsibilities are and how the three branches of government check and balance each other. There’s no king in this state and we all take the same oath. Most people could tell you the name of the three Kardashian sisters but couldn’t name all three branches of government and we need to change that. It’s very important. And who better to do that than the judges and lawyers in the state who have that training?