Chief Justice addresses Judicial Conference, The Missouri Bar during Kansas City annual meeting

18 September 2008

Chief Justice addresses Judicial Conference, The Missouri Bar during Kansas City annual meeting

Laura Denvir Stith, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered the following address during the opening luncheon of the joint annual meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri Sept. 18, 2008, in Kansas City.


President Harris; my fellow lawyers and judges; my colleagues on the Supreme Court and, I see, my former colleague on the Court, Steve Limbaugh; and other distinguished guests: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I intend to spend my time with you in two ways.

First, in keeping with the theme of this year's annual bar meeting, I want to talk with you about diversity. Ask yourselves: How diverse are we?  What can we do to further diversify the face of justice we present to our citizens?

Second, I want to ask you to think about innovative ways to improve Missouri's justice system. My colleagues and I ask your help in determining what our principal priorities should be over the coming months and years. I would ask you to focus on four missions that are central to the success of our legal system:

(1) Ensuring equal and affordable access to justice for all our citizens;

(2) Providing a fair, unbiased and impartial forum for resolving legal and factual issues;

(3) Fairly and efficiently administering the justice system; and

(4) Enhancing the public's trust and confidence in, and increasing its understanding of, the justice system.

As you think about these strategic missions, please send me your ideas about what court services, educational efforts or other collaborative projects are working, as well as those you would like to see us try. I also ask for your ideas for new ways we can make the courts work more efficiently and effectively. We need your input because no plan for the future can work without direction from those who collaborate most closely with our judiciary. Together, we can build on the solid foundation we already have and forge an even better justice system for the future.

Saluting the faces of justice

Before we talk about these priorities, however, I'd like you to join me in celebrating our diverse faces of justice and the key role they play in helping all our citizens understand that the justice system cares about and includes them. Throughout history, it has been up to lawyers and judges to ensure that we always consider the face of justice as we make justice.

The faces of justice that our citizens experience help inform their understanding of how our justice system operates and, more importantly, what justice really means in the state of Missouri.  There was a time – not so very long ago, since it still existed when I began practicing law – when most of our female and minority citizens did not see anyone like themselves on the bench or at the bar.  The face of justice had to change if our legal system was to be – and remain – relevant.  

The good news is, the face of justice has changed – for the better – in the 30 years since I entered this great profession. That is why it was important that, in 1990, Doreen Dodson of St. Louis became the first female president of The Missouri Bar. Without her as a role model, and without the personal encouragement she gave me, I might not be standing here before you today.

Last year, we had further reason to celebrate diversity in the Bar's leadership as Kansas City's own Charlie Harris became the first Bar president of color. It was a long time coming, but I know that he too has served and will continue to serve as an inspiration for many of us here and many more to come. Certainly his elevation helped inspire the theme of this year's bar meeting, and it has encouraged me to analyze the ways in which each of us, as officers of the court, are charged with ensuring that we consider the face of justice as we go about the business of making justice.

This is particularly true of Missouri's judiciary. Not so many years ago, a young African-American boy from St. Louis city, who was on a field trip to our Court, gazed at the walls of our main courtroom and asked why we had, as he put it, "all those pictures of old white men on the walls." They were, of course, portraits of retired Supreme Court judges. Thankfully, times are changing, as are the faces in the portraits.

In 1989, Ann Covington of Columbia became the first female judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri – and the first non "old white man" whose portrait hangs on our walls. She also was our first female chief justice. I regret I never had the opportunity to serve with her – I actually was appointed to fill her vacancy when she retired – but her wisdom, her quiet dignity, her way of seeing diverse views and bringing people together, her very presence on the court – acted as an inspiration not only to me but also to so many other women across the state.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve more than six years with the Supreme Court's first African-American judge, and chief justice, Ronnie White of St. Louis. We're still waiting for his portrait. Ronnie, if it will help, I'll give you this after the speech (holding up empty portrait frame). Judge White's camaraderie, wit, quiet persuasiveness and insights, as well as his poignant stories about how he came to the Court and the changes in diversity he has seen over his career, have made me and all who had the good fortune to serve on the Court with him better judges and better people.

As chief justice, I am given the option of presenting an award to jurists and others of special distinction. It is not an award that is presented every year, and this is the first occasion on which I have given it. But I have two people to whom I will present the Chief Justice's Award this year. Judge Covington and Judge White, I would like you both to please come forward. You both have shown me – shown all of us – how to lead with dignity and how to serve as an example and model to others, not by seeking attention or asking for recognition but simply by doing. Each of you has been such an exemplary role model that no one now could question whether a woman or other minority could be on the Supreme Court or hold the position of chief justice.

Ann and Ronnie, I am proud to present to you these Chief Justice's Awards, which read: To the Honorable Ann K. Covington, and the Honorable Ronnie L. White, whose leadership and distinguished service as the first woman, and the first African-American, on the Supreme Court of Missouri, paved the way for all who follow (presented awards).  I hope each of you will share a few words with us (brief comments by Judge Covington and Judge White).

Nonpartisan plan helps increase diversity on the courts

Given this meeting's emphasis on diversity, I thought this presented a good opportunity to correct misstatements I have heard about the nonpartisan court plan, including that it is somehow "elitist" or does not contribute to diversity – statements that are simply not so.  Rather, as Judge White has aptly noted, Missouri's nonpartisan plan has been a key factor in increasing diversity on Missouri's bench. If we exclude the trial courts that are under the nonpartisan plan, only two persons of color ever have been elected to the bench in contested elections in Missouri, and only one, Judge Sandy Martinez of Fredericktown, is still on the bench. Similarly, history has shown that a far greater percentage of judgeships are filled by women under the nonpartisan plan than in contested elections.

While ongoing discussions about the nonpartisan plan are important and must continue, they need not dominate our discussion. I think you all have probably heard enough on that score. But if you do want to know more, I think I might be able to find one or two people in here somewhere who could talk to you a little more about it.


In all seriousness, I do want to thank you all for your tremendous work over the last year in explaining to the public, the legislature and others the importance of the plan to our impartial judicial system here in Missouri. As most of you know, the plan must be used to choose appellate and Supreme Court judges, and judges in St. Louis City and Jackson County.

Other counties can adopt it, and a number of others have. But, in rural and smaller urban counties, where citizens can get to know and evaluate their judges on a personal basis, and campaigns still do not involve raising large sums of money, judges are still elected.

It is up to local communities to determine when they have grown so large that the cost of local judicial elections has become too much to bear. That is the issue now in Greene County – home of Springfield, Missouri's third largest city – where the cost of running to be a trial judge has reached well into six figures.

This year, a group of lawyers, business and civic leaders, and public officials has concluded the time has come to bring the nonpartisan plan to Greene County. This group collected more than 16,000 signatures in support of adopting the nonpartisan plan. In this November's election, its citizens will decide whether the time has come to select judges through the nonpartisan process. Whatever the outcome, I applaud their efforts to cut out the focus on fundraising and let the judges get back to focusing on their primary mission – continuing to provide fair and impartial justice to all of Greene County's citizens.

Ensuring equal and affordable access to justice

Regardless of how judges are selected, it is incumbent on all Missouri courts and lawyers to ensure equal access to justice for all Missourians – no matter their color or creed or ability to pay. This is the first of the four goals I noted earlier, and one on which much good work already is being done.

Here in Kansas City, Bryan Cave has implemented a full-service response to the city's housing problems. Not only has it established a practice area designed to help troubled banks, but firm lawyers Perry Brandt, Jeremiah Morgan and others have partnered with the Volunteer Attorney Project to eliminate abandoned or neglected properties and enhance the living conditions of our community.

The good examples from our host city do not stop there. Former KCMBA President Charley German pulled together a group of attorneys, municipal judges, mental health and corrections professionals and others to form the KCMBA Homelessness Working Group. They help remove the barriers to employment and housing that exist for individuals who are homeless and provide legal advice for nonprofit organizations serving the homeless.

In addition, the municipal court and the city's prosecutors run "Operation Stand-Down," through which lawyers provide free legal assistance to homeless veterans who are arrested on municipal violations. Usually they just receive community service in lieu of fines.

Modeled after Operation Stand-Down is "Operation Step-Up," created by Kansas City lawyer Janeen deVries and the Association of women Lawyers. It helps clear outstanding traffic and municipal violation warrants against victims of domestic violence and women who are homeless, enabling them to seek housing and employment.

I'd like anyone who is here who is involved in any of these wonderful projects to please stand now and be recognized for your selfless work.


These are terrific examples of a legal community stepping up to help those in need. But the fact remains that all counties in Missouri continue to face a crisis in delivering equal and affordable access to justice – whether through legal aid for those who need help in civil matters, or, in criminal matters, through the state-funded public defender system.

In fact, preliminary results of a very recent study confirm that, of the states with a statewide public defender system, Missouri ranks dead last in the amount of per capita funding for its public defenders. This means that justice is delayed for the victims of crime, who watch as evidence or witnesses disappear and stress increases while they wait months or even years to have their cases resolved.

Our increasing caseload – across the criminal and civil justice systems – affects more than just our public defenders; it also places a continuing and ever-increasing strain on our prosecutors, court clerks, juvenile officers, legal services and private bar members, and, ultimately, all citizens of our state. Each of us must work to ease these burdens and enhance equal, and affordable, access to justice for all – and I invite your input about ways in which we can improve that access.

Providing fair, unbiased and impartial forums for resolving legal issues

Our citizens require more, however, than just equal and affordable access to our legal system. They also expect – and deserve – our courts to be fair, unbiased and impartial forums to resolve their legal issues – the second of the four goals I am setting forth today.

Why should we care so much about our ability to provide fair and impartial justice, based on our respect for the rule of law? Well, it is one of the principles on which our country was founded, and it is a principle for which people in other parts of the world continue to be willing to sacrifice their lives, if necessary. I watched in horror – as I'm sure many of you did as well – as Pakistan's president dismissed the nation's Supreme Court chief justice simply because that court failed to follow his wishes. And I am sure that you, like I, also radiated pride as Pakistan's judges and lawyers and citizens took to the streets in protest, demonstrating their understanding that without independent courts, without the rule of law, they could not have faith in their justice system.

Thankfully, our court management issues are on a smaller scale.  For example, as we have evaluated our court programs, we have found that some types of cases that do not fit well within our traditional framework often can be better handled by looking for creative solutions, such as the drug courts and other specialized types of dockets now offered in most of our counties. These specialized dockets make the processing of such cases more efficient, and best utilize the expertise of those who work on them.  As a result, these cases are resolved more effectively, and in ways that are more sensitive to their unique needs.  This is terrific for the courts and the litigants, and helps make Missouri's communities safer.

A good example is the DWI docket developed in Greene County by Commissioner Peggy Davis.  It has been so successful that it is one of only a handful nationwide to be honored for its work in turning around repeat DWI offenders. Of its 156 graduates since January 2003, we know of only four who have been convicted of subsequent DWIs.

In the city of St. Louis, Barnes Jewish hospital chose to make a community investment in the city's mental health docket. The hospital worked with Judge David Dowd and Commissioner Pat Connaghan to establish videoconferencing at both the court and the hospital, allowing the court to conduct civil commitment hearings without the patient or the doctor ever leaving the hospital. This is less stressful and more dignified for the patient, enhances public safety by eliminating the risk of escape during transport, and allows the cases to move more quickly.

These are just a few examples of new ways to resolve even unique legal issues in a fair, unbiased and impartial manner. But we are certain you will have other suggestions for making our courts fit the kinds of cases brought before them, rather than trying to force unique cases into our traditional court structure.

Efficiently administering justice 

While specialized dockets help improve our efficiencies for certain types of cases, Missouri's courts also have sought and implemented ways to improve our collaboration with our partners throughout government. This is in furtherance of our third mission – administering our courts fairly and efficiently, even in difficult financial times.

Using technological tools, for example, Missouri's courts work with almost every department in the state – as well as several government entities nationwide – to ensure prompt access to judicial information. Collaboration helps save state resources, and can help enhance public safety.

For instance, transmitting criminal information in near real time helps get those with arrest warrants off the streets and helps residential care facilities ensure their employees' backgrounds make them appropriate to work with children or the elderly. Another system gives victims of domestic violence and other crimes access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to vital case information.

As the credit card commercial would say, these benefits are priceless.

Similarly, Missouri's Sentencing Advisory Commission is collaborating with the Board of Probation and Parole and the Department of Corrections to make sure that judges, prosecutors, public defenders and defense attorneys have all the data they need to make informed sentencing decisions. The result? Missouri is proving that placing certain nonviolent offenders into commun­ity programs actually keeps our communities safer, because it has led to lower rates of recidivism than among similar offenders placed in prison. In fact, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in June that Missouri is the only state in the country with a decreasing prison population for the third semiannual count in a row.

Getting needed information to lawyers online has also been a key focus of your Missouri courts' technology team.  Two of its key projects are:

    To provide on-line and searchable PDF copies of all appellate opinions, and

    To launch e-filing. We are soliciting bids in the hope that we can secure sufficient funding to pilot e-filing in the Supreme Court and, at a later point, adopt it throughout the state. The system we are considering will not be like the federal PACER system. Instead, it will have to be pay-as-you-go, provided through a private vendor, for the state just does not have the federal courts' resources.

We look forward to your input into the e-filing pilot program, as well as other ideas you may have for increasing the efficiency of the courts.

Increasing public trust and understanding

The other reason we are working so hard to provide more information online –for both you and your clients – is that we recognize the increasing number of citizens who get their information from the Internet. And that is why our fourth mission is to enhance the public's trust and confidence in who we all are and what we do. We cannot let the public's perception – or misperception – of lawyers, judges and the courts be shaped by television entertainment programming such as "Judge Judy" or "Boston Legal."

Much in society these days seems to fall into an "us versus them" mentality. Too often, we hear about the members of our profession as the punchline of a joke or the focus of a partisan attack in the media. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the adversarial nature of our legal system. But it is not the way it has to be, nor is it the way it should be. The more the public learns about what we really do, the greater will be its confidence and trust in the justice system.

I know many of you in this room share this optimistic view, for I have seen scores of you look beyond your differences and focus instead on the tie that binds us all: a deep-rooted desire to serve people and to bring justice to those who need it.

Together, lawyers and judges have collaborated to help Missouri's citizens better understand both Missouri's court system and why fair and impartial courts are essential to justice.

For instance, last winter Charlie Harris and I sent a joint letter encouraging judges to take greater advantage of opportunities to speak at local forums about the justice system, and he sent a similar letter to many lawyers. Based on the feedback from all corners of the state, it is clear that a good many of you have risen admirably to the challenge, reaching out into your communities and embracing your ethical duty under the Rules of Professional Responsibility and Code of Judicial Conduct to educate the public about the law, the legal profession, the courts – indeed, our very system of justice, administered through a third, co-equal branch of our democratic … small "d" … government.

There are other ways the bench can collaborate with the bar to enhance the public's understanding of the justice system. One example is the expanded judicial performance evaluations that Judge Wolff suggested in 2007 and that the Bar instituted this year to provide more – and better – information to voters about nonpartisan judges up for retention. Former Bar President Dale Doerhoff led the implementation of new evaluation committees around the state, and they presented their evaluations, which can be found on The Missouri Bar Web site, to the public earlier this month.

I am pleased with the quality and quantity of expanded information the new evaluations have made available for voters.  I also have asked our state courts administrator's office to spearhead a working group to help make these evaluations even more meaningful, and we invite your help in this process.


I know there are many more outstanding examples of dedication and excellence among our judges and lawyers as you fulfill your missions to provide service through justice in a way that improves the lives of our citizens. As a unified Bar and court system, we have much to be proud of in the areas of collaboration and ongoing outreach.

But actions speak louder than words, and this is especially true when it comes to showing our citizenry that – despite what they may see on television shows or hear in the media – judges and lawyers are deeply committed to serving all Missourians.

Judge Mary Sheffield of Rolla recently demonstrated the depth of her commitment to service on an international level. She is one of only four judges in the nation selected to participate in the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which facilitates the prompt return of a child wrongfully taken from one member nation to another.

As a final example of caring service from here in our host city, I want to recognize the mark that Kansas City lawyer Tyrone Flowers is making on this community. For those of you who may not know Tyrone, he grew up in foster care, spent time in the juvenile system and, two weeks before high school graduation, was shot in the back by a basketball teammate, paralyzing him.

Faced with decisions about his future with limited use of his body, he became a shining example of a successful "graduate" of our juvenile justice system. Counseling he got from juvenile officers who worked with him helped him choose not to perpetuate a cycle of violence and instead to use his mind.  He put himself though college and ultimately earned his law degree. He became a member of the state CASA board, helping victims of violence himself. Along with Lathrop and Gage attorney Mike Williams, he also tirelessly promotes Higher M-Pact, the nonprofit organization Tyrone and his wife founded to help change the course of many of today's high-risk urban youth by inspiring them to become tomorrow's leaders in their families and their communities.

I appreciate this opportunity to thank Judge Sheffield, Mike, Tyrone and all of you for all the incredible good work you already are doing.

And in conclusion, I look forward to your input in the coming months as we in the courts develop a strategic vision of a justice system of which we all can be even more proud.  As you do so, please remember: Don't get too caught up in the adversarial nature of our legal system or in the controversies of our day. Try not to focus on the legal issues that tend to pull us apart to the exclusion of courtesy and collaboration.  Instead, let us embrace our collective diversity as we continue to forge the future of our justice system.

Thank you.