Last Friday, a member of the highest court in the state of Missouri made a rare public appearance at the Webster Hills United Methodist Church Christian Life Center as part of the Shepherd's Center of Webster-Kirkwood "Adventures in Learning" education program.
Mary R. Russell, one of only four women to ever serve on Missouri's Supreme Court (and one of the current three), delivered an hour-long presentation to local seniors called "Supreme Court 101," a primer on several topics relating to how the court works and also how it compares to other states.
Justice Russell first delved into her own story.
Born in Hannibal, MO and raised on a dairy farm, Russell never thought she would end up becoming a judge.
"I grew up in a very traditional lifestyle," Russell said. "I thought I would be maybe a journalist or a dietitian; something more 'womanly.'"
Spending lots of time sitting on the tractor and looking up at the planes flying overhead, she said to herself that someday she would get off the farm and "get a job with my name on a door somewhere."
She did just that after receiving her Juris Doctor from the University of Missour School of Law in 1983 and joining the Clayton & Rhodes law firm the following year. In 1995, Russell was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, and then in 2004, Governor Bob Holden appointed her to the Missouri Supreme Court, where her term will end in 2018.
While Russell began her presentation by covering the basic structure of Missouri courts, local resident Ted Forsyth asked about the number of state supreme court cases that eventually go before the Federal Supreme Court.
"About 10 percent of our cases file with the U.S. Supreme Court, but the percentage that actually get accepted is only about one," Russell said.
Something most people may not be aware of is how Missouri's judicial system has acted as a model for about 30 other states, Russell said.
In 1940, after corruption during the Depression era rendered the courts illegitimate, political campaigning and contributions were made illegal within the judicial branch of government. While some states followed suit, many did not, like Illinois, for instance.
In 2004, Russell said, the two candidates running for a seat on the Illinois state Supreme Court raised a combined $9.3 million (a national record). Most of it came from out-of-state corporate contributions.
"We (judges) shouldn't have a favored home team," Russell said. "We are meant to protect everybody under the law." The Missouri Supreme Court justice said that a recent poll of Americans found that 70 percent of people believe political contributions have an effect on judges' decisions.
Closing out her presentation, Russell admitted to not watching any legal TV shows, since they are, by-and-large, inaccurate, and if they were accurate, they would be "quite dry and boring." Russell also noted her devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals and how Kirkwood reminds her of her home town."I think I might move here after my term is over," she said.