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‘Fated from birth’: Judge Stith retires from Supreme Court after venerable career

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After exactly 20 years serving on the state’s highest court, Judge Laura Denvir Stith retired Monday from the Missouri Supreme Court. But don’t expect her to remove her venerable hand from the legal profession anytime soon. 

As Stith says, it was “fated from birth” for her to become a judge. Both of her parents were deeply involved in the St. Louis community, her father had briefly attended law school, and dinner conversations among the family of seven were centered on current events. Four of the siblings would become lawyers, one a reporter. 

“I was always drawn to going into public service as my parents had shown us that was the highest way to serve your community,” Stith told The Missouri Times on her last day. 

At 67 years old, Stith was cognizant that her time on the Missouri Supreme Court was coming to an end; the state has a mandatory retirement for those who reach the age of 70. So Stith wanted to leave on her own terms, ending her tenure on an even number, with her impact on Missouri’s judicial system undeterred. 

Stith was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2001 by then-Gov. Bob Holden and retained office during the 2002 and 2014 elections. She spent about 15 years at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City (including a decade as a partner) and had clerked for former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Robert E. Seiler — becoming the first law clerk to come back as a judge. 

Stith served as chief justice from 2007-2009, only the second woman to hold that position. A unique aspect of the state’s high court: Judges rotate through the position every two years. 

“We like to think of the chief justice as the first among equals,” Stith said. “We all respect each other, work with each other, and know that one day we’ll be chief justice, too. It engenders cooperation, and so I think it’s one of the reasons we’re so collegial more than other judges in other states because it’s a reflection of the respect we have for each other, and we trust each other to take turns.” 

Stith had only been on the Supreme Court for about two years before she made an indelible impact on juvenile cases. Before the court was a man who had been sentenced to death for murdering a woman when he was 17 years old. 

“The question was: Should they be executed or could we commute their sentence to life in prison because they were 17 years old at the time of their crime when they killed someone,” Stith recalled. “In a case like this, it’s always a horrific case, and you’re always concerned about the victims and the facts. But the question about the death penalty, when they were a juvenile and not fully developed, it’s not if they’re guilty … but do they have the culpability that the only reasonable sanction is death.” 

Stith authored the 4-3 decision determining individuals under 18 should not be eligible for capital punishment because they are not “sufficiently mature.” The case, Roper v. Simmons, was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which concurred. And 72 juveniles around the country were moved from death row to life in prison, Stith said. 

“It had a very real impact across the country,” she said. “That is among the most impactful [of my cases], and the reasoning of that case has been applied to other cases dealing with juveniles since then.”

Stith will continue as a senior judge in Missouri — meaning, she could be appointed to certain cases or work on commissions and committees. She also hopes to work with the Legal Aid of Western Missouri in an advisory or policy capacity. 

“I thought I would pick the time [to retire] that just worked for me,” Stith said. “And I feel I have plenty of time to do other things for the community now, too.”