JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The incoming leader of the Missouri judiciary grew up on a family dairy farm near Hannibal where she drove tractors, stacked hay, helped ready cows for milking and worked in the garden. She now is poised to become the Missouri chief justice after starting law school thinking she did not want to practice in the courtroom.
Judge Mary Russell said Wednesday she is honored and humbled and described herself as "an ordinary person in an extraordinary position." Beginning next week, Russell will lead the seven-member Missouri Supreme Court for two years, presenting a proposed budget to the Legislature and likely giving a speech about the judiciary during a joint legislative session.
Members of the high court select the chief justice, and the position has rotated among the judges. Russell succeeds current Chief Justice Richard Teitelman who will remain on the court. Teitelman said in a statement Wednesday he will continue to support efforts to ensure the poor have adequate legal representation and is confident Russell will be an effective leader.
"I have been humbled to have served the wonderful people of our state for the past two years as Missouri's chief justice," Teitelman said. "One beauty of our system in Missouri is that, while each of us has the opportunity to serve a two-year term as chief justice, we always work as part of a team of seven individuals."
Russell, 54, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden. She was a judge in the Court of Appeals' Eastern District from 1995 to 2004 and served as chief judge from 1999 to 2000. Russell was clerk from 1983 to 1984 for state Supreme Court Judge George Gunn.
Before her legal career, Russell was interested in journalism. She has degrees in communications and print media from Truman State University and wanted to do consumer affairs reporting. However, she enjoyed covering trials for the Hannibal Courier-Post. When she started law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, she did not want to practice in the courtroom because she did not have confidence in her ability for public speaking, thinking on her feet and serving as a good advocate for clients.
Now as chief justice, Russell wants to concentrate on civics education to teach about how government operates and the rights and responsibilities within the Constitution. She also wants to continue to expand electronic filing, make sure there is support for specialty courts such as veterans and drug treatment courts and examine public opinion about Missouri's court system. She plans surveys of people leaving courthouses and said she has discussed the concept with the next two in line to serve as chief justice and hopes to keep it going.
"We're always interested in improving and seeing how we can do our jobs better," Russell said. "We will look at both the metropolitan areas and the rural areas and see if maybe there are problems unique to those particular types of courts."
Russell's experience within state government extends beyond the courthouse. She has worked in the communications office for the Missouri Senate and in the Senate president pro tem's office. In 1991, she was a Democratic member of the Senate Reapportionment Commission that was responsible for redrawing state Senate districts based upon the 1990 census.
Russell is married to Jim Russell, who is a lobbyist that has represented the Missouri Agribusiness Association.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in the same courtroom where the Supreme Court conducts oral arguments, Russell said the high court judges are apolitical and get along well. She declined to categorize her judicial philosophy.
"I don't like labels. I look at each case based upon the law, based upon the facts," Russell said. "I don't think of myself as any particular category."
Last summer, Russell wrote the dissenting opinion when the Missouri Supreme Court struck down an important piece of Republicans' effort to curb liability lawsuits by capping noneconomic damages for issues such as pain and suffering in medical practice cases. The court ruled that a limit on damages restricted the jury's fact-finding role and violated the right to trial by jury. Russell wrote in her dissent that the ruling "reflects a wholesale departure from the unequivocal law of this state and leaps into a new era of law." She said the right to a jury trial can be met when a jury awards damages and a judge latter applies a law capping those damages.