Rural roots set state high court judge apart

Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mary Rhodes Russell believes she is the only member of the Missouri Supreme Court who keeps udder cream in her chambers.

The lotion was originally used by farmers to keep cows’ udders soft, but its ability to soften skin makes it popular as a hand cream.

The cream, amid the law books and elegant furnishings of the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, speaks to Russell’s uncommon path to the highest judiciary in the state.

Russell, who was appointed by Gov. Bob Holden to fill a vacancy on the bench in September, is an anomaly on the court. At 46, she’s the youngest sitting Missouri Supreme Court judge. She’s also the third female judge in the court’s history and the only one with a rural background.

Farming background sets Russell apart from other judges

Russell was raised on her family’s dairy farm outside Hannibal. She thinks her contact with rural residents has led her to see legal issues differently from urban judges.

“Just understanding basic things, like fencing law or life on a gravel road, that whole perspective is totally different than what city people think,” she said.

Russell, who once wanted to pursue a career in journalism, was a courthouse reporter when a judge taught her a few points of law.

Although women made up only about 30 percent of the MU School of Law in 1980, a friend suggested she submit an application.

“The professors did not treat the women any differently from men,” said Russell, who received her law degree in 1982. “You had heard stories in the past where women weren’t welcome, but that wasn’t the case at all.”

Russell keeps a small, wooden desk from Tate Hall, then home to the law school, in her chambers. She said her time at MU crafted how she sees her profession and her life.

“It changed my whole identity,” she said. “It made me think differently. It gave me new opportunities to help other people.”

It was during her education, both at MU and previously at that Russell began to form bonds with some of the top names in state government. Russell was a college intern for Rep. Gary Sharpe of Hannibal and worked for Sen. Norman Merrell, then president pro tempore of the state Senate, while she was in law school. In law school, she also became friends with Russ, Robin, Randy and Thomas Carnahan.

Although Russell was involved with the Young Democrats while in school, Rep. Richard Byrd, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she enjoys bipartisan support.

Byrd, who said he has known Russell for years, compared her to the judge she replaced on the Missouri Supreme Court, Duane Benton. Benton was appointed by President Bush to a federal judgeship earlier this year.

“Judge Benton was respected by both parties, and so is Judge Russell,” Byrd said.

While working in the House, Russell first met then Rep. Jim Russell, now a Jefferson City lobbyist representing interests ranging from Missouri agriculture to the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Years later, they became reacquainted. They have been married for nine years.

Russell said her husband’s involvement in legislative matters would not threaten her impartiality on the bench.

“Any case in which one of his clients would be involved, I would remove myself from the case,” she said.

Russell said her experience with the legislature has led her to pursue strong relations between the two branches of government.

“One of the things I want to do is try to keep the lines of communication open between the two buildings,” she said.

After law school, Russell landed her first legal occupation as a clerk to former state Supreme Court Judge George Gunn. Gunn worked in the same chambers, behind the same desk, where she now resides.

In 1995, Russell was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. The following year, facing her first election, Russell received the endorsement of more than 84 percent of attorneys polled by the Missouri State Bar. She was elected with about two-thirds of the vote.

Before her appointment, Russell had twice applied for a seat on the state Supreme Court. She was a finalist in 2001, when an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said her record suggested a “progressive” judicial philosophy.

Russell said that when Holden interviewed her for the court position, the governor did not ask about political philosophy or her stance on the issues.

“There’s certainly no litmus test given to you by anybody,” she said. “Nobody asks you how you’re going to rule on any type of case. No one asks for your philosophy.”

However, personal experience can affect a judge’s thinking, said Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Clifford Ahrens.

Ahrens knew Russell when they were both attorneys in the 1980s and when they worked together on the Court of Appeals. Ahrens doesn’t expect Russell’s rural background to be a significant factor in her rulings, but he said she would bring to the court “a perspective that metropolitan judges might not have.”

While on the Court of Appeals, Russell sought to increase public knowledge of the judicial system. She began a practice of the court holding arguments at different locations around the state.

“I think the more that the public has knowledge and understanding of what we do, the more confidence and respect they’ll have in the judiciary,” she said.

The Missouri Constitution prohibits the Supreme Court from meeting outside Jefferson City, but Russell said she hopes to find new ways to teach court procedure. She uses a play for elementary schoolchildren about the courts, and she might encourage the Court to hold mock hearings throughout the state.

Russell also reaches out on a more personal level, mentoring young women who are pursuing a career in law.

“It’s not that I want to be a role model for anybody,” she said. “But I certainly want to help women who may sometimes not have the courage to know that they can do it.”

Russell is only the third woman to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. Still, she does not consider her gender to be a strong influence on her judicial thinking.

“There are many times that you write opinions that you wish, perhaps, the laws were different,” she said. “But because the legislature writes the laws, we have an oath and duty to follow them.”

Russell was officially sworn onto the court on Oct. 8 and said she has no plans to seek any other legal position in the future.

“I began my career here,” she said. “I’m going to end my career here.”

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