Demystifying Missouri’s high court

Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:03 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dear Reader:

News reports tend to portray an entity like the state Supreme Court as a monolithic abstraction that hands down decrees from somewhere on high.

It makes it easy to forget the Missouri Supreme Court really boils down to seven people in black robes.

Sure, the 99-year-old building that houses the court can intimidate. Gilded neoclassical detailing encircles the high-ceilinged corridors that flank the grand marble staircase. Portraits of former judges, several of them from the mid-1800s, keep solemn watch over many of the rooms.

But outside of the robes, the judges today are collegial and lively. They make jokes. And laugh.

I noted all this during a media open house at the court Friday. The event was organized to help us journalists get more familiar with what goes on in the court so we can do a better job of reporting those decisions to you, our readers.

Here’s one example of how journalists could do a better job of court reporting: Criminals always seem to be convicted on solid evidence, but if an accused person is let go, it is due to a “technicality.” As a few of the Supreme Court judges pointed out, that word — “technicality” — is not often used when a person gets sent to jail, or worse, because the details of the situation land him or her just barely on the guilty side of a complicated law or statute.

Pundits these days who disagree with this or that decision by a judge often pin words like “activist” onto the judiciary. However, Judge Mary Russell stressed how painstakingly the Missouri Supreme Court judges try to set aside personal beliefs to uphold the letter of the law.

Sometimes laws are poorly worded (after all, the legislators are human, too). At that point, Russell said, a different kind of judicial activism might spring up in the form of the court recommending that a vague or unclear statute be rewritten to reflect the legislature’s true intent.

Missouri adopted a nonpartisan process for selecting judges more than 65 years ago. The process relies on an independent, nonpartisan commission to select finalists for each judgeship. The governor then picks one of those finalists or leaves it up to the commission to decide. The voters get a chance to veto the appointment after the judge has been on the job for a year. More than 30 other states have since adopted at least part of this procedure.

The folks at the Supreme Court have made commendable efforts in the past few years to open up the process and get the word out about what the court is doing. The media open house is just one example.

Communications counsel Beth Riggert also has revamped the court’s Web site, And the judges are even considering how to make oral arguments from Supreme Court cases available online. That way, anyone with an Internet connection would be able to listen in.

Of course, if you’d rather watch them in person, the court proceedings are still open to the public.

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