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Breckenridge, Draper, and Venker honored with the 2023 Spurgeon Smithson Awards

Spurgeon Smithson

The Missouri Bar Foundation has named Hon. Patricia Breckenridge, Hon. George W. Draper III, and Paul N. Venker this year’s Spurgeon Smithson Award recipients for their contributions toward increasing the quality of the administration of justice. They will be recognized Sept. 13, 2023, during the Missouri Bar Foundation and Public Service Awards Luncheon at the Annual Meeting of The Missouri Bar in Kansas City. 

Established in 1976, the Spurgeon Smithson Awards recognize judges, law teachers, and/or lawyers who have provided outstanding services toward the increase and diffusion of justice. The Missouri Bar Foundation Board of Trustees selects the recipients, who each receive a $2,000 stipend.  

Upon graduating from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1977, Breckenridge returned to her hometown of Nevada where she began her practice at Russell, Brown, Bickel & Breckenridge. While practicing, she served as assistant municipal judge for the city of Nevada. In 1982 she was appointed associate circuit judge of Vernon County, and she held that position until being appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District in 1990.  

Breckenridge was appointed to the Supreme Court of Missouri in 2007. She served as chief justice from 2015-2017, establishing many committees and task forces to improve procedural fairness and civics education for all Missourians.  

“Each of us can improve the trust and confidence of our citizens in our legal and judicial systems by consciously committing every day to doing the right thing in performing our duties,” Breckenridge said. 

Draper, a graduate of Howard University School of Law in Washington D.C., was appointed to the Supreme Court of Missouri in October 2011. He served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri from 2019-2021 leading Missouri’s courts through the unprecedented challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. He retired from the bench in August 2023. Before serving on the Supreme Court of Missouri, he was a circuit attorney and a circuit and appellate judge. 

Draper, along with both his father and wife, is an inaugural member of the Gallery of St. Louis Legal Pioneers with the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. He also serves as a trial advocacy adjunct professor for Saint Louis University School of Law where he has taught since 1996.  

“It was an honor to serve,” Draper said. “But I believe it is imperative in the service of justice that more minorities be appointed to the bench.” 

After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1980, Venker clerked at the Supreme Court of Missouri. Following a stint at his own firm, he was managing partner at Williams Venker & Sanders from 2001 to 2018 and is now senior counsel to Baker Sterchi Cowden.  

Venker has been active in bar work since he was elected to The Missouri Bar Young Lawyers’ Section Council in 1987. He served on The Missouri Bar Board of Governors from 1992-2000. Venker has served as chair for the Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee since 2014. The committee’s work was integral to establishing the Freedom Suits Memorial in the City of St. Louis. Venker says he is driven by a passion to ensure that everyone’s Constitutional right to a fair trial is upheld.  

“No one is perfect, but all deserve a zealous and evidence-based defense and a right to a fair trial,” Venker said.  

Click here to learn more about annual awards presented by The Missouri Bar, the Missouri Bar Foundation, and other entities. Read about other 2023 award winners here