8 September 2017
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Supreme Court of Missouri’s newest judge, W. Brent Powell, celebrated his formal investiture Friday afternoon in a ceremony in the en banc courtroom of the Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City. Judge Kevin D. Harrell, a circuit judge in the 16th Judicial Circuit (Jackson County) served as master of ceremonies. Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer administered the oath of office.
Two people – including Gov. Eric Greitens – spoke to approximately 250 guests, overflowing from the en banc courtroom to an auxiliary courtroom. One of Powell’s former law clerks – Jody Larison, a special assistant United States attorney – also spoke. Powell’s wife – District Judge Beth Phillips of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri – assisted with the robing.
In opening the event, Harrell – whose chambers were on the same floor as Powell’s in the Jackson County courthouse – challenged those present to find someone nicer or more honest than Powell. He later praised Powell for always being available for his fellow judges to help with difficult legal issues, saying, to laughter, “He would have the answer, and the explanation … and the explanation, and the explanation.”
Larison echoed Harrell’s sentiments about Powell’s kindness, noting how important he has been as a mentor in her legal career and expressing excitement that, as a Supreme Court judge, Powell will have the opportunity to share his successes and lessons learned with law students and young attorneys throughout the state.
She also described his kindness toward litigants and jurors alike. Larison recounted one case tried before Judge Powell over several days that she thought should not have been tried at all.
“At the end of the trial, I realized what Judge Powell had known all along,” she said. The parties “just needed someone in a black robe to listen to them so they could get a decision and move on with their lives.”
In conclusion, Larison said Powell never would take his new position for granted, because he believes the people of Missouri – through the Appellate Judicial Commission members who nominated him and Governor Greitens, who appointed him – wanted him here, “and he is not going to let them down.”
Greitens began his remarks by describing Federalist No. 78, in which “Alexander Hamilton underscored the need for the American people to insist ‘on that independent spirit in judges, which must be essential to the faithful performance of such an arduous duty,’” which the governor explained was the judge’s duty to “interpret, not make, the law” and the key role a judge plays “in guarding the constitution, maintaining limited government and preserving this magnificent experiment called the United States of America.”
Greitens recognized the judge whom Powell succeeded in office, the late Richard B. Teitelman, who died in November, as “a trailblazer who dedicated his life to serving Missourians, who was known for his kindness and generous spirit.” Greitens noted Teitelman paraphrased Helen Keller in his own investiture remarks, from 2002, telling the crowd then, “For a committed life, one has to have fidelity to a noble purpose.”
Like Teitelman, “Judge Powell brings the same spirit,” Greitens said. “In Judge Powell, we also have a man who has lived his life with fidelity to the noble purpose of public service.”
Greitens said his focus, in appointing judges, is to find highly qualified judges who are leaders in their communities, both on and off the bench; with a deep understanding of the constitution and the proper role and responsibility of a judge; and who will work to increase Missourians’ confidence in their justice system. He said, among the nominees for the position, “Judge Powell stood out.” It was “clear” the “law runs through his blood,” noting the many members of Powell’s family and his wife’s family who are lawyers or judges.
“He loves the law,” Greitens said in conclusion. “He loves Missouri. He respects the constitution. He is a mentor who helps with young lawyers. … He is a servant-leader devoted to the community.”
After the robing, Powell offered remarks, thanking the Appellate Judicial Commission members for nominating him, the governor for appointing him, the speakers for their kind words and all those in attendance for “sharing this incredible, incredible day” with him and his family. He also thanked Court staff for helping him acclimate over the past few months to his new position on the Court.
“This institution, this place, means so much to me,” Powell said. “I want to protect it and make it better.”
He also said he looks forward to joining the Court’s work to improve the civil and criminal justice systems, noting “there are no easy solutions” to barriers he saw as a trial judge for average citizens to be able to afford to litigate their disputes in court or to hire counsel to assist them.
“Justice is not a result but a process,” Powell said. “It requires a fair trial and a fair hearing, allowing each side to tell their side of the story, but barriers prevent them from doing that. … Justice is increasingly expensive. … Disputes get decided for the wrong reasons, outside the justice system, so people lose faith in the system.”
In closing, Powell also recognized Teitelman, whom he noted helped build his confidence when he was a young judge.
“I am here today because he left us, and I cannot begin to replace his void,” Powell said. “He was a kind, caring and compassionate person. … I hope and strive to be at least half the human being he was.”
A native of Springfield, Powell earned his bachelor of arts, magna cum laude, in 1992 from William Jewell College. After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law in 1996, he worked as an associate at the Kansas City law firm Lathrop & Gage LC. He then spent four years as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Platte County before joining the United States attorney’s office for the western district of Missouri. His seven-year tenure there included terms as deputy chief and chief of the general crimes unit as well as executive assistant United States attorney. Powell had served more than nine years as a circuit judge in the 16th Judicial Circuit (Jackson County) when Governor Eric Greitens appointed him to the Supreme Court of Missouri in April. He began hearing Supreme Court cases in May.