Circuit Judge Jeff Harris is no stranger to political office or campaigning.
He served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009, where he held positions as House minority whip and the House minority leader. State Sen. Chuck Graham described Harris in 2002 as a “bright young star in the Democratic Party."
Harris ran for attorney general in 2008 but lost to Chris Koster. Gov. Jay Nixon then appointed Harris as his policy director in 2009, where Harris served until Nixon appointed him as a 13th Circuit judge when Gary Oxenhandler reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in April.
In the Aug. 2 primary, Harris is running to keep his position as 13th District Circuit judge against fellow Democrat Deborah Daniels. He believes he has the right academic, legal and leadership experience to win and continue serving Boone and Callaway counties.
In this campaign, he said, his entire family is involved: his wife, Katie, 8-year-old daughter and his 4-year-old son.
“It’s nice that my kids want to get involved and help out as much as they can,” Harris said. “The kids got a kick out of being in the parade in Fulton on the Fourth of July and at the Boone County Fair Parade in Sturgeon."
Harris, 51, grew up in Columbia. His father, Robert Harris, is a pediatrician in Columbia, and his mother, Jerry Harris, is involved in civic activities.
"My son is the real deal," Robert Harris said. "He's always been fascinated and intrigued by public service. When he was younger, he read Harry Truman's books. He's intelligent, compassionate and firm in the courtroom. I'm so proud of him."
As a child, Jeff Harris played golf, which taught him individual performance, discipline and rules, his father said.
Jeff Harris received his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, magna cum laude, and a law degree from Cornell University, where he worked on the Cornell Law Review.
He then went to Jackson, Mississippi, for a federal judge clerkship and returned to Missouri in 1992 after Bryan Cave, a private practice legal firm, recruited him to Kansas City.
“Bryan Cave provided me the best of both worlds,” Jeff Harris said. “To work for a truly high-powered, top-flight law firm but also to work with a smaller group of attorneys, where you get more hands-on experience.”
Herb Kohn, a senior counsel attorney at Bryan Cave, knew Jeff Harris when he was a young lawyer doing litigation.
"As an associate, Jeff was always in great demand by the partners," Kohn said. "They always wanted him to work on their cases."
Harris said his experience in private practice was an important prelude to his time as circuit judge.
“Too many times you see judges who have been in the ivory tower and don’t really have a connection to the real world,” Jeff Harris said. “They don’t know what it’s like to be out there as a practitioner or private practice. I lived that life.”
Although he said he enjoyed his career at Bryan Cave, he felt a yearning for public service — something he said his parents instilled in him.
“My parents raised me with the value of giving back to the community,” he said. “Becoming a part of the fabric of the community and realizing that frankly we have an obligation to give back. That as much as anything has influenced my career path.
“I feel like my parents raised me with a real sense of right and wrong, along with the idea that certainly there are times where you need to be sensitive to different kinds of circumstances,” he said.
In 2001, Jay Nixon, who was Missouri's attorney general at the time, appointed Jeff Harris as assistant attorney general, and his public service career began.
Six years in the state legislature gave him leadership experience, Jeff Harris said, “tested by fire” when he was whip and minority leader.
“Many times you make unpopular decisions, but they’re decisions that you have to make based upon the best information you have,” he said. “Decisions that literally affect tens of thousands of people.”
Solid decision-making skills is the most important part of being a circuit judge, he said.
“You have to have impeccable judgment, you have to do your homework, and you have to be decisive,” he said. “You can’t wring your hands over a decision. You make the decision based on the information at hand. You don’t worry. You do the best you can.”
Nixon appointed Harris as a judge in the 13th Circuit in April, making this statement in a news release at the time:
“Jeff Harris is an exceptional public servant who combines a brilliant legal mind, with impeccable character, integrity and ethics.
"Often the best judges are ones who have excelled both in their legal careers and at the highest levels of government. Jeff will bring both real-world experience and an exhaustive knowledge of Missouri law to the position of circuit judge.”