Chief Justice Ronnie White addresses The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference in Columbia

2 October 2003


Chief Justice Ronnie White addresses The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference in Columbia


Ronnie L. White, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered the following address during the opening luncheon of The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference annual meeting October 2, 2003, in Columbia, Mo.

President Doerhoff, esteemed judicial colleagues, fellow members of the Bar –

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you my vision for the Judiciary. I hope that, in some small measure, this vision will contribute to a more professional, diverse and technologically integrated future for the practice of law in this state.  We have achieved much in recent years, from the expansion of our internationally award-winning court automation program to the dedicated work of our judicial committees and Bar committees, whose commitments to increasing professionalism in the practice of law is second to none.  However, much remains to be done.  With the commitment shown by your presence here today, I am confident that we can achieve even the loftiest of goals.

First of all, as a shining example of what we can do when we set out to make improvements in response to the needs of this state, I would like to recognize my predecessor in this office, the Honorable Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., for his commitment to the cause of Missouri's abused and neglected children.  … Judge Limbaugh, will you please stand?  It was his vision that brought the Commission on Children's Justice to fruition, and it was his courage and leadership that began the process of change that we must all work to complete in the future.  In fact, the Judiciary already has taken the first steps toward change.  

The Supreme Court Family Court Committee recently completed the Missouri Resource Guide for Best Practices in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases.  Judge Limbaugh and the committee – along with the Office of State Courts Administrator, Missouri's court-appointed special advocates and the Division of Children's Services – then cross-trained caseworkers and judicial officers alike.  Nearly a thousand professionals in the field attended the training, including every single member of the judicial branch who is assigned to work on juvenile cases.  Through this effort, we hope the communication barriers that may have led to problems in the past can be shed in favor of a new cooperative atmosphere.  Although much still may need to be done in this area, and in others like it, it is the type of proactive leadership shown in this endeavor – leadership that re-imagines boundaries and envisions a new and better reality – to which we all must dedicate ourselves.

In that spirit, I hope that during my two years as Chief Justice, the Judiciary will examine three key items. Two of these represent expansion of the best of what we are are doing, and the third represents what we can and must do well to thrive as a vibrant legal community.   Today, therefore, I am calling for an expanded commitment to our Nonpartisan Court Plan and our Court Automation Program, two areas where Missouri truly can be called a nationwide leader.  We must commit to these causes so that Missouri’s judicial professionalism and technological advancement continues to set an example for the nation.  I also am calling upon the entire Judiciary – and indeed all of us here today who are responsible for the practice of law – to redouble our efforts to improve racial and gender diversity. This great state is diverse, and so must be its practice of law and those who serve in the legal community. Equal access to justice can only be realized fully when there is an equal opportunity for all to serve in the system of justice.  While I realize that these three goals may seem a bit much or lofty for a two-year term, I believe that our record of achievements in the past shows that we can achieve even the greatest of goals when we are united in our aspirations.

Expansion of the Nonpartisan Court Plan
As an example of what we have achieved in the past, one needs to look no further than Missouri’s most well-known judicial export – the nonpartisan court plan, commonly called the Missouri plan throughout the United States.  As time passes and judicial practice becomes more complex, technical and administrative in nature, more states are turning to some form of our Missouri plan.  In fact, South Dakota has a constitutional measure pending that would mandate the Missouri plan as the selection method for all its judges.

Since the inception of the nonpartisan plan, Missouri itself has continued to grow and change.  Counties that were once considered rural are now so large in population that they rival, and surpass in some cases, the populations of even our largest cities.  As these judicial circuits grow, new challenges to judicial practice and judicial elections often come to light.  What once may have been friendly elections between the few local attorneys in a county now might become hotly contested affairs, replete with the high election costs that often accompany more urbanized elections.

The external pressures placed on judges and judge candidates by these contests, if left unchecked, could eventually compromise the integrity of the judicial system in such circuits.  Even if every judge in such a circuit were to make every effort to separate elections from decisions, the appearance of the intrusion of politics into the judicial process would be very difficult to avoid when re-election is at stake.  Who is to say, for example, that our diligent judge's opponent will have the same commitment to fair-minded judicial practice that our incumbent judge possesses?  
These are questions that should give us all pause … and cause us to examine the possibility of expanding the nonpartisan court plan into our newer urban circuits such as those in Greene, Jefferson and St. Charles counties.  First of all, let me say that I know of no judge serving in any of these circuits whose professionalism is anything other than honorable.  However, it is the potential of future problems toward which we should direct our investigation.  Missouri has been fortunate enough to avoid the exorbitant, high-dollar judicial elections that have plagued other states such as Texas, but in circuits where the population now reaches well into the hundreds of thousands, such problems only can be held at bay for so long.  

So, what can we do?  First, we must work in full cooperation with the circuits – and more importantly the people – in question.  Heavy-handed efforts that thwart the will of the people will not stand the test of time, and it is pointless to proceed if those we are seeking to help do not wish to be helped.  So we must examine each circuit individually to determine whether proceeding toward a system of nonpartisan judges makes sense for that circuit.  The judges, lawyers and general public should have ample opportunity for input.  Election trends in each circuit must be studied in depth to determine the potential for future dilemmas.  If, after a careful review, a circuit believes it might benefit from the nonpartisan plan, then it will then be incumbent on the local Bar to do the hard work of garnering the support necessary to facilitate the change.

To those of you who might live in these counties I have mentioned, I realize that my remarks may cause you some concern. And so to you I would say two things … First, you are already under the nonpartisan court plan, at least to some extent. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals maintain appellate jurisdiction over your cases now, and I believe history has shown us that appellate judges can, in large measure, balance the concerns of constituencies who vote to retain them with the need to adhere to long-standing principles of jurisprudence. For example, many fine judges … such as my colleague Steve Limbaugh, Judge Glenn Norton, Judge Bob Barney, former judge Stan Grimm, my former colleague John Holstein, and many others … all have made the transition from achieving the bench through partisan elections to serving as judges under the nonpartisan plan. So what this says is if you are a good judge, you can make it either way; it doesn't matter.

Second, your input will be vital to this process, as I envision it.  It is my goal to serve merely as a catalyst for this analysis, not to foist change onto an unwilling public. I ask only that my request be taken seriously, and that at least each of the circuits I have mentioned make a full accounting of the pros and cons of adopting the nonpartisan court plan.

Increasing Diversity in the Courts
Perhaps an added benefit to the Missouri plan is that it has helped open the doors of opportunities to minorities. Under the plan, Missouri achieved its first female appellate judge and first woman on the Supreme Court … its first African-American to be named to the appellate bench and the first African-American selected for the Supreme Court … and its first Jewish judge to serve on the Supreme Court, my friend Rick Teitelman.

In 1994, when I was appointed to the Court of Appeals, Eastern District, there were no other African-American judges on the entire appellate bench in this state. At the time, there was one woman serving on the eastern district and one woman serving on the western district, and one woman on the Supreme Court of Missouri.  I can remember attending my first appellate section meeting of the 1994 judicial conference.  I was the only African-American in attendance.  Why?  Because of the 39 appellate judges, I was the only African-American on the bench at that time.

Time has passed, and the diversity of the appellate bench is better. We now have the obvious – an African-American on the Supreme Court; two African-American judges are on the Western District now; and two African-American judges are on the Eastern District.  And now there are now a total of nine women on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court … in fact, Judge Patricia Cohen of St. Louis city was just appointed last week to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. Judge Cohen, will you please stand?

But we can do so much more to make our courts and our Bar truly reflect the diversity of this state. As I said earlier, the great concept of "equal justice" on which our Judiciary is founded only can be fully realized when there is equal opportunity for all to serve in our system of justice.  This commitment must be made at every level of the system, from the assistant clerk in Worth County all the way up to me as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Success in this effort cannot be said to be complete when a certain number or percentage is achieved, but rather when equality of opportunity for both entry and advancement exists in every corner of this state.

Diversity and equality of opportunity are of special importance to our survival as a living, vibrant legal system.  When people come to our courthouses, they need to see that other people just like them have every opportunity to thrive in the Judiciary as a workplace. Then those people inevitably will feel that equal access to justice is more than just a vision … they will see that it is really a reality.  When people feel vested in, rather than controlled by, our system of justice, we as a Judiciary have succeeded in our promise to society.

How, then, do we realize this vision in concrete ways that the Bar and Judiciary can feasibly implement?  First, through the Missouri plan, we must diversify our selection panels so that both selectors and those selected represent a wide cross-section of the citizenry.  Without diversifying the ranks of those who aspire to become trial judges and appellate judges, however, we will struggle to develop the array of applicants we seek. Right now – according to the 2003 Missouri Bar economic survey – 30 percent of attorneys responding were women, a mere 2 percent of those responding were African-American, and fewer than 1.5 percent reported that they were Asian, Hispanic or other minorities. While our law schools are making efforts to attract and retain more minority students, these statistics reveal that we have far to go before we achieve our ultimate goal of diversifying the practice of law in Missouri.

I believe it is clear that diversity must begin at the earliest levels, from pre-law and paralegal programs to law school to entry-level positions throughout the legal community … and perhaps even earlier than that … so that in the future, diversity does not require effort but rather takes place as a matter of course in a profession where all facets of society are represented.

And let me just say this: Let's not form another committee or group to study diversity in the bench and bar.  I have been on some of those committees with Mike Middleton. We don't need those anymore. I know several studies have examined gender and racial bias.  Instead, let's form a committee to implement a plan of action to remedy discrimination.  We need to take action rather than continue to study.  In fact, some people believe that by studying a problem they are in fact solving the problem.  It gives them a false sense that they are doing something, when in fact, they are not … they are just studying.  Let's be proactive now, so someday the discussion can end.

Expansion of Court Automation
In 1993, when I still was in the state legislature, I sponsored House Bill 681 – it the first bill seeking to automate our state's courts.  Although no one else seemed to share this vision – except maybe Judge Gary Witt, who got it passed as a representative during the next legislative session – I realized then that the future of Missouri courts would lie in their ability to embrace technology in their efforts to provide service, justice and access to the citizens of this state.  Well, now the "future" is here. We all realize that technology simply is the way we all do business.  Bringing advanced technology to our courts is now an absolute business necessity, not a hypothetical dream or automation project. For our court system to remain able to serve the public effectively, we must continue to scrape our way into the 21st century with every technological tool we can afford.

By continuing to expand our internationally award-winning efforts to use advanced technologies in the courts, we will also further the goal of a more professional Judiciary. Although there is much more to be done, there is much that is already working well. Let me take a few moments to share with you some of the features that our system already has.  

Probably the most recognized feature of our technological efforts is our online case information system, Case.net. I know you are using Case.net, because you have given us many suggestions in the past that the Office of State Courts Administrator is using as it works to upgrade Case.net. We hope to unveil the "new and improved" product next year. But as you may not realize, Case.net is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in our ongoing efforts to increase public access to justice.  

The technology that supports and feeds information into Case.net is the internal case management program, Justice Information System, commonly referred to as JIS.  JIS is improving the business of our courts in so many ways that many may not be obvious to the casual observer but that would be noticeable immediately if they were no longer present.

Because of JIS, courts no longer need to rely on a pegboard accounting system for collecting and distributing all the myriad fees attached to court costs. Last year alone, the general assembly attached six new fees to be collected by our circuit courts. For courts with JIS, it just took a flip of the power switch to begin collecting and distributing the new fees automatically. For courts on a pegboard system, the process was far less efficient, and clerks had to send out six additional checks at the end of each month in the effort to help all those valuable state programs supported by the fees.

The next step in the accounting capabilities of JIS will be the upcoming implementation of the state's new tax-offset program. The passage of HB 600 during the last legislative session will enable the state's automated courts to report delinquent fines, fees and court costs electronically to the department of revenue. This way, pending income tax refunds can be used to pay the delinquency. With JIS, the program will be available to more than 70 counties. The Judiciary's use of this automated tax-offset program could generate millions of dollars for this state.

Another way that technology can help the state weather its current financial challenges is by helping to improve Missouri's public safety system. Through JIS, courts are able to transfer shared information electronically to law-enforcement agencies. In addition to helping to protect Missourians from criminals before they act again, this shared data also gives us a statewide view of criminal activities, helping Missouri determine the trends and make decisions about where to spend valuable justice and rehabilitation program dollars. In addition, this instant electronic transfer of traffic convictions and adult protection orders eliminates duplicate paperwork and saves the state even more money.

We hope that electronic transmission of warrants, criminal histories and other critical information will not be far behind, further enabling our courts to interact seamlessly with their law enforcement counterparts and provide efficient, accurate justice systems that simply would not be possible absent technological solutions.

Electronic sharing of information also allows the state to better help one of its most vulnerable populations – its children. By using advanced technologies, courts are connecting with executive agencies, schools and law enforcement to paint a current and accurate picture of all of the services a particular child is receiving. By giving all agencies a complete assessment of each child's involvement in the juvenile system, the state can ensure that it is not wasting valuable time and resources.

These are just some of the highlights of the many benefits of the advanced technologies our courts have. Of course, there are even more benefits to be had – including the electronic case filing that so many members of the Bar await with eager anticipation. Goals like these are in sight, but they require funding, either from traditional sources such as general revenue or through whatever avenues we may discover. I ask each of you to support these efforts in any way you can.

Given the benefits of automation, imagine the backlog of a system forced to retreat to manual entry and manual accounting. Aside from annoying delays, access to justice would be greatly hindered, and public trust and confidence in the entire legal system would be undermined.  

Unfortunately, though, almost half the state's caseload remains in circuits not yet connected to JIS. Of course, it is Missouri's current financial challenges that are limiting our ability to realize the full potential of court technology. Because of those challenges, we must look at creative ways to expand our efforts, with an eye toward the fiscal prudence that the current climate mandates that we must have. For example, although no new state dollars were available, the 16th Circuit determined that JIS was vital enough to spend its own money for the costs of converting to and implementing the new system. Other parts of the Judiciary, such as the 40th and 41st circuits and the St. Louis County Probate Court, decided to implement JIS prospectively, leaving the costly chore of converting old court data to the future. We hope to continue these alternative implementations, and we must continue to use models of fiscal innovation to bring all of the courts onto JIS. At the same time, we must continue to look to general revenue as a traditional funding source for completing our court automation.

Some of you are lawmakers who have helped us in obvious and important ways. In particular, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Matt Bartle and Rep. Richard Byrd, our court automation fund has been extended to 2009. I thank you all for your past efforts, and I sincerely hope you continue them. I ask those of you who benefit from our efforts to tell others what this system has done for you, and what more it could do if we could collaborate and find ways to bring it to its full potential. In this day and age, courts can ill afford to ignore the need for advanced technologies to aid in their work. Implementing automated systems in the courts is not a luxury – it is an essential business tool that we must have to function as a branch of government, and we need your help to achieve that goal.

Just as I ask for your help in completing our court automation program, I also ask each of you for your input about the Judiciary and what it can do to improve its entire technological commitment. Many of you have suggested changes to both the design and content of our web page, and your concerns have been noted. I plan to begin the process of revamping much of our web content, to increase public information and improve access to justice. I encourage you to stop by the Judiciary's booth in the exhibit hall today or tomorrow and share your comments with our staff there. For my part, I will do what I can to ensure that our doors – and our minds – remain open to the ideas of this legal community. I'm very proud of court automation, and I wanted to talk about it. Most people think it's just a computer in every courthouse, but it's more than just having a computer .. it's access to information.

Again, I thank you all for the opportunity to share my vision of the next two years with you.  I hope you all leave this conference continuing to search for ways to expand our nonpartisan court plan, ensuring that Missouri avoids the pitfalls seen in judicial elections elsewhere … to increase diversity in our legal system, making our citizens feel vested in their courts … and to expand our technological capabilities, providing greater service, access and justice throughout the state.