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Columbia Missourian

For the first time, two appellate judges are from Columbia

By Eva Dou
October 21, 2010 | 6:39 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Judge Mark Pfeiffer hears cases in Kansas City and lives in Columbia. This is rare.

Even rarer – so does Judge Karen Mitchell.

Judges up for retention

Here are the judges who are up for retention votes on the Nov. 2 ballot:

  • Missouri Supreme Court: Zel Fischer
  • Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District: Victor Howard, James Welsh, Alok Ahuja, Mark Pfeiffer and Karen Mitchell.

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"Two judges from Columbia; that's never happened before," said Terence Lord, clerk for the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, where Pfeiffer and Mitchell work.

Pfeiffer's and Mitchell's names will be on the ballot in November. Like all recently appointed appellate judges, they have to face retention election, in which voters will decide if they get to stay for a 12-year term. The Missouri Bar has recommended that both be retained, along with all other judges facing retention election except for one, Associate Circuit Judge Judy Draper.

Before 2009, the last time Missouri had an appellate judge from Columbia was in the 1980s. That was Judge Ann Covington.

But last year, Gov. Jay Nixon filled two seats on the Western District appellate court with Columbia residents. Under Missouri's nonpartisan plan for selecting judges, Pfeiffer and Mitchell were each chosen from a list of three nominees that a selection committee submitted to the governor. 

Geography doesn't figure into the selection, Lord said, but most appeals judges for the Western District end up being from Kansas City because there are more lawyers and district judges there. Pfeiffer and Mitchell are exceptions.

Mitchell was a Kansas City native who settled in Columbia while working in Jefferson City as a clerk for a state Supreme Court judge and later as assistant attorney general, chief deputy attorney general and director of the Missouri Department of Revenue.

Pfeiffer grew up in Columbia, as did his wife, Tracy. They started dating at the age of 14 after meeting at a basketball game at West Junior High School. After getting his law degree at MU in 1991, Pfeiffer practiced law with a Springfield firm for three years before moving back to Columbia to work with partner Wally Bley, specializing in civil litigation.

Today, Pfeiffer and Mitchell hear cases in Kansas City, but they both work half the week from their offices in Columbia.

"I actually get more work done here because I can concentrate," said Mitchell, 51, from her office at the MU Law School.

Pfeiffer, 43, said he thinks it's useful that three of the Western District's 11 appellate judges live outside Kansas City. Otherwise, he said, it can be easy for the court to seem like an ivory tower, handing down justice from the clouds. Unlike trial courts, appellate courts have no witnesses or juries.

"When I was appointed, the governor said, 'I want you to pull back the curtain of the 'Wizard of Oz' and tell people what you do,'" Pfeiffer said.

The court's been trying to do this by hearing cases in different spots around the district, including at college campuses.

But much of what judges do takes place in the office, where they prepare to hear cases by reading legal briefs and wrestle over the wording of opinions. 

For the difficult cases, Mitchell says she sometimes tries writing up opinions both ways before deciding.

Pfeiffer thinks through tough cases with the help of his old baseball bat, glove and ball, relics from coaching his two sons through Little League. He brings the sports equipment to work, whether in Columbia or Kansas City, and he goes outside to play catch with himself while he mulls over legal questions.

"What helps me think is the smell of leather and hearing a baseball land in a leather glove," he said.

Pfeiffer says he's hoping baseball will help him out in another way in November – some members of the first group of Little Leaguers he coached are turning 18.

He's asking them to cast a vote of confidence for their old coach.