JEFFERSON CITY - Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, the first black judge appointed the state's highest court, said Friday that is stepping down from the bench.
White said he plans to retire July 6 and would like to continuing working in the legal field, though he has no specific plans after leaving the Supreme Court.
White, 53, of St. Louis, was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court in October 1995 by former Gov. Mel Carnahan and took a turn as chief justice from mid-2003 through mid-2005. He previously served on the Missouri Court of Appeals' Eastern District and as a Democratic state House member.
"I have devoted most of my life to public service, first in my home community of St. Louis, then in the state Legislature and finally as a judge in Missouri's judiciary," White said in a written statement. "My family and I are looking forward to my return to life as a private citizen."
White was twice nominated by former President Bill Clinton to serve on the federal bench. But then-Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., led a Senate fight against White that ended in 1999 with the defeat of his nomination.
Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor, contended White was soft on the death penalty. Two years later, White testified against Ashcroft as the Senate considered whether to confirm Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft ultimately got the job.
Had Ashcroft not blocked his federal judgeship, White likely never would have had the opportunity to become the state's first black chief justice. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where the chief justice is appointed by the president and serves indefinitely, Missouri's chief justice rotates every two years by seniority.
As he prepared to ascend to that top spot in 2003, White told The Associated Press that his main priority was to encourage diversity in Missouri's court system.
"I truly believe that within the judicial department, we need to work a little bit harder to try and place people of color within our organization," White said then. "It's not a big deal that Ronnie White is the chief justice, it's that a person of color can become chief."
On Friday, current Chief Justice Michael Wolff said White's legacy should focus on more than just "the groundbreaking status he achieved through mere happenstance."
"His status as `the first' aside, Judge White has served this state with honor and dignity and a quiet diligence to promoting equal access to justice," Wolff said. "He never sought the spotlight, and he never liked it shining on him, so I am happy for him and his family that he can return to private life, away from the spotlight."
White got his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He defended indigent suspects for the St. Louis public defender's office and later opened a private practice. He was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in a special election in 1989 and resigned in 1993 to become city counselor under St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
Under Missouri's court system, a special panel will take applications for White's replacement and submit three nominees to Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who will appoint one of them. That person then will stand for a statewide retention election.