The first black chief judge of the Missouri Supreme Court said Thursday that, while the state has become a judicial trendsetter for the nation, more needs to be done to diversify the practice of law in Missouri.
In a keynote address at the Missouri Bar Association’s annual meeting in Columbia, Chief Judge Ronnie White said equality in the legal profession cannot be measured by numbers alone, but rather “when equality of opportunity for both entry and advancement exists in every corner of this state.”
White told nearly 1,000 lawyers and judges at the Holiday Inn Expo Center that, under the state’s nonpartisan court plan — known around the country as the “Missouri plan” — Missouri achieved a number of important milestones, including the first woman appeals court judge, the first woman Supreme Court judge and the first Jewish Supreme Court judge.
And then there is White himself. Before his 1995 appointment to the Supreme Court by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, White was the state’s first black appellate court judge. White urged the expansion of the nonpartisan court plan, which favors the appointment of judges rather than partisan elections, to growing judicial districts in Missouri. Currently the nonpartisan plan is used only for appellate judgeships and in St. Louis and a few urban counties.
“Diversity and equality of opportunity are of special importance to our survival as a living, vibrant legal system,” White said.
The three-day meeting of the Missouri Bar, with a membership of nearly 26,000 lawyers and judges, was held in Columbia for the first time. The event, which began Wednesday, features educational seminars, discussion panels and ceremonial presentations.
It is tradition for the state high court’s chief judge to address the bar each year and outline his or her goals for the upcoming term.
White emphasized that his comments was not just words, but a call to action.
“Let’s not form another committee or group to study diversity in the bench and bar,” White said. “Let’s be proactive now, so someday the discussion can end.”
Jeffrey Burman, interim dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s law school, said White’s comments reflected a broader interest in diversity among the state’s legal community.
“It’s always a theme among law schools to have a more diverse class,” Burman said. “The new theme for the bar is getting more diversity in the firms and the practice.”
White also challenged the state bar to expand the court automation plan, which was created through a bill he sponsored when he was a state legislator in 1993. A decade later, increasing access for the public and legal communityto online judicial records remains a priority for the Missouri top judge.
“I’m very proud of court automation,” White said. “and I can’t think of one lawyer practicing today who does not use a computer.”
After his address Thursday, White led the bar’s Board of Governors in discussing how the state’s budget crisis will affect the judicial system. Jack Brady, a member of the Board of Governors from the Kansas City district, identified funding as one of the “big issues” of this year’s conference.
The state’s judicial system expects cuts in all state-funded operations, spelling layoffs for court operations staff, reduced travel allowances and fewer educational programs for lawyers, according to the Board of Governors.
Dale Doerhoff, president of the Missouri Bar Association, said this year marks the first time the bar’s meeting has strayed from its usual St. Louis-Kansas City-Springfield venue rotation. Doerhoff said the meeting’s location allows many lawyers who studied law at MU to reminisce about their years in Columbia, and gives others a chance to discover the city’s charm.