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Mary R. Russell rises to the role of Missouri’s Chief Justice

Vol. 79, No. 4 / July - Aug. 2023


As Mary R. Russell steps into the role of chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, we caught up with her to talk about technology, her time on – and off – the bench, and her advice for new lawyers.

Tell me about your journey to the Supreme Court of Missouri. What were your first thoughts when you found out you were appointed in 2004? 

My first job out of the University of Missouri School of Law was as a law clerk to Judge George Gunn at the Supreme Court [of Missouri]. A year later, I returned to my hometown of Hannibal to practice law with Bob Clayton. He was a president of The Missouri Bar and encouraged me to run for a seat on the Young Lawyers’ Section Council. 

Through my council service, I met other young lawyers across the state, including my current colleague, Zel Fischer, and others who later became judges, including Karen Mitchell, Angela Quigless, and Dan Scott. I stayed involved in many bar committees and never missed an Annual Meeting. As a result, I became acquainted with lawyers and judges from around the state. 

After about a dozen years, Judge James Reinhard encouraged me to apply for a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, where he was serving. Upon my first application, I made the panel along with Bob Dowd Jr. He told me if I promised not to “bad mouth him” to the governor, he would help me on my next application. Well, the governor appointed him first and me upon the next opening, and we have been dear friends ever since.

I loved my time on the court of appeals, working with many experienced judges who taught me much about appellate jurisprudence. I ultimately served there nine and a half years, including a year as the chief judge. 

It was an unbelievable honor to become just the third woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. It also brought my career full circle – 22 years after working in Judge Gunn’s chambers, I was back in the beautiful red brick building, working in the exact same chambers, but this time, I had a robe of my own and the honor of sitting on the other side of the desk. I even got my own parking space!

Judge Russell swearing in Speaker Plocher on Jan. 4, 2023
Judge Russell swearing in Speaker Plocher on Jan. 4, 2023

What part of the legal system has changed most since you joined the Court?

One change has been the rise in the number of women now practicing and leading the profession. When I was at Mizzou, the law school had only one female professor, and our class was about one-third women. Today, Missouri law schools are graduating classes with more than 50% women, with many more female professors and women having served as dean. The Missouri Bar is now led by three women and a female executive director; similarly, women serve in leadership roles for local bar associations throughout the state. Approximately one-third of Missouri judges now are women, and it is not uncommon for a courtroom to have a female judge and all female attorneys in the courtroom arguing a case. The presiding judges in our three largest trial courts are all women. Although we need more women in leadership roles in the large firms, gone are the days when law firms hired one token woman and no more. 

Another major change in the profession has been technology. Now, instead of book research and carrying home a stack of briefs to read, we can do legal research anywhere with an internet connection, and I can work from my iPad. Electronic filing, Case.net, and video technology have made the practice of law faster. It is also wonderful that technology gives litigants remote access to courts, both in seeing pleadings and, in some instances, in lieu of their personal attendance in court. Plus, I think we all were thankful for the investment our Missouri courts had made in technology when the pandemic hit and suddenly we all had to function remotely.

Technology also has increased the demands on our time, and I worry it also seems to bring about a loss in human interaction and the important interpersonal skills of lawyers. I hope we find ways to embrace the efficiencies of technology without losing one another or abdicating our core functions as researchers, writers, advocates, and adjudicators.

What do you enjoy most about serving on the Court?

I always have enjoyed public outreach. This tradition of outreach was important even when I was on the court of appeals. We held dockets in venues where the court had never been before, including local high schools and colleges and even a retirement facility. Through our “appellate road show,” we went directly into communities so more people could better understand what the court of appeals was all about.

At the Supreme Court, I have continued to make our courts more accessible. Collectively, we speak to groups around the state and to the 20,000 visitors to our building each year. We also work with our constitutional partners in the legislature to help them better understand the third branch of government.

There is a lot of misinformation about how judges decide cases, but I love telling the public – in easy-to-understand terms – how judges are bound by the law, including legal precedence. We don’t decide cases on our own personal beliefs or preferences. Sometimes we reach decisions I personally do not like, but because I am bound by the law, that is my duty. My talks with any group include an activity called “you be the judge.” I give the audience the facts to a real case we previously decided, show them the language of the law to be interpreted, and ask them how they would decide the case. I remind them they are bound by the law and not their personal beliefs. I pick cases with at least two possible interpretations to illustrate how reasonable minds can differ in judicial interpretations. 

My absolute favorite part of outreach is when audience members tell me afterward, “Now I get it. Now I understand how the court works. No one ever explained it to me before.”

Judge Russell giving a civics education presentation

What advice do you have for new lawyers? 

Never forget why you went to law school in the first place. Life can be challenging, and the law even more so, but I encourage all new lawyers to find their niche, remain professional at all times, and not let others define them. For the large number of women entering the profession: do not be discouraged if you find that, in many situations, men are still in charge; the large majority of managing partners, judges, and government leaders are still men. By working hard, protecting their reputations, listening to mentors, and remaining true to professional ethical standards, new lawyers will be successful.

What do you enjoy doing for fun? 

I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren – whether we are going to museums, playing outdoors, having tea parties, or attending sporting events. 

I particularly love watching the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball, especially during winning seasons. Despite not having one now, I recently attended their first game in the United Kingdom. 

I also enjoy cooking, gardening, reading, golfing, and playing pickleball.

Judge Russell at 2022 Thanksgiving Day Parade

Judge Russell with her family

Fast Facts about Chief Justice Russell

A seventh-generation  Missourian, Russell is one of five children raised on a dairy farm in Ralls County.

Russell was appointed to the Supreme Court of Missouri in 2004 and was the third woman to be appointed to the bench.

She was valedictorian  of her high school class.

Russell is active in numerous civic and charitable groups, including PEO, Rotary Club, and Zonta.

Russell is an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan.