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Chief Justice Russell addresses Missouri lawyers during Annual Meeting

Vol. 79, No. 6 / Nov. - Dec. 2023


Mary Rhodes Russell, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered this address during the opening luncheon of the joint Annual Meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri Sept. 14, 2023, in Kansas City.  

Chief Justice Mary R. Russell

Thank you, President-Elect Phillips, and good afternoon to all of you!

I’m back! Some of you might remember I spoke at this event nearly a decade ago, when I was first chief justice. We rotate this position, and because I am currently the longest serving judge, I get a second turn ... lucky me.

A few people have asked me, what has changed since last time. Ha! What hasn’t changed? Well, except me, of course! I certainly do not look any older ... right?

You know, change is a funny thing. The very utterance of the word “change” can evoke a range of responses. Some of you may view change as a great adventure to be embraced with relish. For the more normal of us in the room, it may cause anxiety, a rise in blood pressure, a quickening of pulse, fear, perhaps even panic. But whether we like it or not, the world around us keeps changing, and we either fight the inevitable (and fail) ... or find a way to adapt and grow.

In some ways, we are lucky, because as legal professionals, our foundation remains constant. So, while the concepts of the rule of law and legal precedence remain steadfast, how we do our jobs has changed dramatically. But I think Mark Twain was right; he said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like!”

Technology is changing

Technology is the most obvious change. It has impacted our profession at an unprecedented pace. When I stood on this dais a decade ago, one of the biggest challenges we had was figuring out how to let an attorney present evidence electronically.

But covid forced all of us to use unfamiliar technology such as WebEx to keep our courts functioning, whether remotely or with hybrid proceedings. It was incredibly stressful, but adapting to the reality of the pandemic was a necessity, and you know what they say about necessity. In hindsight, it showed us that not only can we change, but that change can also bring unanticipated benefits, saving time and expense for you and your clients. Driving hours to the courthouse and waiting long periods for your turn in the courtroom have become less frequent.

Even the bar has changed how it provides legal education. It now offers CLEs remotely, making it easier for all of us to keep up with new developments in the practice of law while saving time. The learning curve may have been steep, but as a profession, we cleared the hurdles and embraced those changes, and our practices and proceedings are better for it.

But despite their convenience and efficiency, there is a downside. The camaraderie of lawyers seeing each other at CLEs or in the courthouse, such as on law days, is lost. The loss of personal contact between lawyers must not compromise our civility. Now, more than ever, it is important for us all to treat one another with kindness and respect.

And now we are in the throes of yet another major change – in public access to court records. We have been expanding transparency for nearly three decades. Of course, records of all courts are presumed to be open to the public, and attorneys always have had a legal obligation to redact confidential information from their public court filings. But, as the years passed, the expectation became that “public” should mean “available online” for anyone, not just licensed attorneys or court employees.

This summer, remote public access arrived. For two years, the Missouri Court Automation Committee laid the groundwork for the expansion of remote public access. The Court provided a one-year roadmap to redaction, with more specific rules about what would be expected of filers. Some have argued we have been moving much too slowly, while others argued we are moving much too fast. People disagreeing – first time I’ve heard that!

Working as a team, the bar and the judiciary have spent countless hours educating lawyers and judges alike and developing a web-based Q&A for pro se litigants and the public. I want to give a huge “thank you” to each and every one of you who has stepped up to help educate your fellow lawyers, judges, and staff about best practices for redacting confidential information.

I understand this change is as monumental for lawyers and judges as it is momentous for the public. But don’t let the pressure of change discourage you. Please continue to provide your thoughtful feedback and suggestions, as we consider how to continue improving the access Case.net provides. You are an important part of this revolutionary journey of bringing public court files to anyone with an internet connection.

Before you know it, redaction will be as routine as e-filing, and we will have succeeded in making our justice system so much more accessible and transparent for the public we all serve. And besides, by next year, we’ll be worrying about AI!

Another part of our practice that continues to change is how cases are decided. For example, although the number of civil filings has increased slightly, the number of civil jury trials has been steadily declining for decades, with more cases being resolved through mediation, arbitration, and settlement. Since the year 2000, the number of civil jury trials in Missouri has dropped by 76%.

At least one country lawyer from Illinois would view this as a good change: “Discourage litigation,” he said. “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity” to do good. “There will still be business enough!” Anyone recognize that country lawyer? It was Abraham Lincoln.

Changes in leadership

Significant changes in our profession don’t stop with technology, public access, and caseloads. The makeup of our profession is changing, as well. Let’s start with the front tables here today: For the first time in the history of our bar … our president, president-elect, and vice president are all women. And, just yesterday, Athena Dixon was elected to become the next vice president!

The composition of our judges also has been changing dramatically. Since I last spoke to you, 60% of our judges statewide are new, with Gov. Parson having appointed nearly a quarter of them just since 2021. To highlight, in the last year alone, three-fourths of Greene County’s judges, and more than a quarter of its commissioners, are new to their positions. This is a huge change!

As a result of all this change, the diversity of our bench is shifting as well, with more judges who are female, younger, minorities, or with physical disabilities.

Our profession is changing

With baby boomers entering retirement, law offices are also changing. In just the last couple of years, about 1,200 lawyers have taken inactive status. That leaves nearly 31,000 active lawyers licensed to practice law in Missouri, and another 378 new lawyers who will be sworn in later this month. Today, more than a third of Missouri attorneys are women, and approximately 12% are racially or ethnically diverse.

In addition, the composition of our law schools continues to change. For the first time ever, all four Missouri law schools have more female than male students in their classrooms. The majority of the editors-in-chief of the schools’ major legal publications are also women. For example, here at UMKC, that woman is Naomi Buie, a non-traditional minority law student. This is revolutionary to me, given my own memories of law school. We had so few women, the women’s restroom was about the size of closet!

Legal education is also changing

When today’s first-year law students graduate, their entrance into the profession will be quite different from the one we experienced. To meet employers’ expectations that their new hires will be practice-ready, a new bar exam is being created to enhance skills testing. The focus will be on applying skills to legal doctrine. Beginning in July 2026, the National Conference of Bar Examiners will roll out what is being called the NextGen bar exam. A national leader in developing this test is our own Judge Cindy Martin of the Western District Court of Appeals. She is highly regarded for her hard work, leadership, and legal acumen on this major national project. Thank you, Cindy.

Change as a means of continual improvement

We also have been national leaders in our willingness to look inward – critically examining what we find, and applying what we learn to improve how we do things. A wise person once told me that healthy things grow, and growing things change. Think about it. Change isn’t just reacting to circumstances around us. We should seek opportunities to embrace change because it means we are healthy … we are growing.

Look how much we have grown already ... by making our courthouses physically safer, to providing better funding for our public defender system, and by developing stronger partnerships with private attorneys. We’ve also clamped down on the use of our municipal divisions as ATMs for local governments. But there is always room for improvement, and we must remain willing to do the work necessary to grow. We cannot shy away from criticism, whether we find it constructive or not. And we cannot ignore evidence demonstrating a need for improvement.

Here is one example. A recent independent study by Missouri State University of more than a decades’ worth of criminal case records found systemic issues with procedural fairness in how we charge and sentence criminal cases, especially those involving domestic violence and armed criminal action. The results are just a beginning, and the university recommends further study, but one thing is clear: we must work harder to change how we treat all people who come into our courts.

I believe we all can agree the bottom line is this: that every person – regardless of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, or ability – should be treated with respect from the moment they enter the criminal justice system through the final disposition of their case.

Procedural fairness is the heart of our judicial system. Law enforcement and prosecutors must be fair in how they arrest and charge defendants. Prosecutors and defense counsel alike must be fair in how they engage in plea negotiations. Judges must be fair when determining who is eligible for diversion programs and how a convicted defendant should be sentenced. The courtroom is one place where the promise of everyone being treated equally must be true. Our system of justice requires it.

It is not enough to say we are going to follow the law and treat everyone fairly and equitably – we have to act on that promise and not allow ourselves to be distracted by personal notions. We must do everything in our power to ensure procedural fairness in every case, for every litigant, every time.

There are more changes on the horizon

If change is hard for all of us, it can be brutal on our staff on whom we rely to just magically make things work as we want.

Ten years ago, I embarked on an “undercover judge” program to learn from the people who use our courts. It highlighted what we were doing well and what we could do better. One finding still resounds with me: Despite the outcome of a case, litigants just wanted to be heard in the courtroom.

You can hear a lot, just by listening. Over the next two years, I plan to travel to every circuit in the state (there are 46 of them now!) to listen, learn, and thank our court employees for everything they do. They are our unsung heroes, overworked and underpaid, who in this past year alone have been transitioning to a new case management system, scouring thousands of court records for potential expungements; and helping us navigate remote public access, all while making sure the everyday work of the courts still gets done.

It truly takes a whole network of villages for our legal system to function well. A court without its clerks, bailiffs, juvenile officers, jury supervisors, court administrators, and other staff would flounder, just as I suspect many of you would … without your assistants, paralegals, investigators, and office managers. In recognition of the change they all have to endure: please be kind to all staff.

Some changes hit close to home

Some changes hit really close to home. For those of us on our Court, this gathering is bittersweet. Our longtime friend and colleague, George Draper, hung up his robe this summer and is now enjoying a well-earned retirement. Next month, we lose another longtime friend and colleague, Patty Breckenridge, as she also faces mandatory retirement. Please join me in thanking these two incredible jurists for a combined seven decades of judicial service to the state of Missouri!

Thankfully, our court finished the summer with all of our cases resolved. This leaves a fresh slate for our newest member, Judge Kelly Broniec.

For those of you who don’t know Judge Broniec, she has been a judge on the Eastern District appeals court since October 2020. She previously served as both associate circuit judge and elected prosecutor in Montgomery County.

Judge Broniec, I know you will be an outstanding addition to the Court. I think you will find – as I have – that your new colleagues on our Court are intelligent, collegial, and they will welcome you with open arms. I am excited to welcome you to your new Court family.

When I graduated from law school, there was only one woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It would be another seven years until Ann Covington became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri. Each time a woman joins the Court, it resonates deeply with me. Women of my generation spent years as the only woman in the room or at the table, so the thought of now having a majority of women on our Court, even if it is only for a month*, leaves me too emotional for words.

Building resiliency for change

We can’t stop the constant changes to our work and world around us. But to succeed, we need to change as well.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Change is stressful. The nature of the work we do is stressful. Life is stressful. So, to be at our best – whether at work or at home – we need to take care of ourselves … and each other.

The pressures on lawyers in trying to secure favorable results for their clients, in making payroll for the firm – or on judges in rendering a tough, unpopular decision – all while maintaining high ethical standards can be overwhelming. Our bar associations have taken active steps to boost resources available to all of us and address our needs in a healthy way. So, if you see a colleague who appears not to be themselves, ask how you might be helpful to them. Urge them to take a break when things get overwhelming. Then celebrate their decision to seek help.

You all are important to me. I care about each and every one of you. We are part of a challenging profession in challenging times. It is exciting, demanding, rewarding, and stressful. If the last decade has taught us anything, it is this – we are capable of adapting to change, and it is worth it.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

I need you … and we all need each other … to build resiliency and adapt to all the changes around us. I am counting on you to look after yourselves and one another. Together, we can all do our best to change, to grow, and to make our system of justice even better!

Thank you.

Editor’s note: On Oct. 30, 2023, following the retirement of Judge Patricia Breckenridge, Gov. Mike Parson named Judge Ginger K. Gooch as the newest member of the Supreme Court of Missouri. The choice cemented the Court’s status as a majority-female court.