Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell's address to the annual meeting of The Missouri Bar, the Judicial Conference of Missouri in Columbia
September 19, 2013
Missouri chief justice calls on lawyers, judges to help make Missouri’s courts better for everyone
Mary R. Russell, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered the following address during the opening luncheon of the annual meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri Sept. 19, 2013, in Columbia
Thank you, President Brady … colleagues, for that warm welcome. It is such an honor and pleasure to be here with you today. I have been coming to these annual meetings for almost 30 years, and I enjoy renewing old friendships and making new ones.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy said, "Like it or not, we live in interesting times.” This statement is as true today as it was then. But interesting times create interesting opportunities. And so I ask all of you – lawyers and judges alike: Take a fresh look at these opportunities and use them to make Missouri’s courts better for everyone.
Our courts now handle more than 2.5 million cases each year, and they touch every aspect of human endeavor. Although the basic issues themselves may not have changed over time, many of us can think about how much the practice of law has changed. For example, the kinds of evidence – and the manner in which cases are handled – are drastically different. Even the view of the justice system has changed. Now, the public expects both lawyers and judges to be problem-solvers. And, of course, technology allows for almost instant access to court information.
But despite the changes, what remains constant is the need for careful advocates and thoughtful, impartial judges. What also remains constant is that people continue to come to you – and the courts – seeking justice. But more basically, they seek understanding … and they seek answers.
At the Supreme Court of Missouri, we have set a primary goal to make Missouri’s courts better for everyone by continuing to improve access to the courts, to clarify services for our users, to ensure procedural fairness, and – perhaps most importantly – to provide timely resolutions so people can have more certainty in their lives.
We have been working on some of these issues, as have many of you through our various committees. For example, Judge George Draper is leading a group to reduce language barriers. Our newest member, Judge Paul Wilson, works with the committee developing methods of providing greater access to family courts as well as the court technology committee. Judge Rick Teitelman continues his steadfast passion for legal assistance to those less advantaged. And Judge Laura Stith is working with the Court and Bar’s joint commission on women in the profession to help the legal profession as a whole take meaningful steps toward eliminating bias and ensuring full and equal participation of women.
We can improve if we know what Missourians need. This is why we are implementing a program of customer surveys. We are visiting courthouses and asking people who use our courts – litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers, social workers and others – how the courts can provide better services.
You may have heard of the television program "Undercover Boss.” Well, last month, I visited two county courthouses as the "undercover judge.” Dressed in a T-shirt and capris, I had the opportunity to talk with all types of visitors to the courts.
It had been almost 20 years since I spent a whole day in a trial court.
Talking with so many people brought back many memories from my days of practice in northeast Missouri. As I sat shoulder to shoulder with people in the hallways, I could feel their anxiety, their worry and their apprehension as they waited their turn to appear in front of the judge. For most, it was their first time in any courtroom, and they did not know what to expect. Many did not have lawyers to help them navigate the unfamiliar turf.
The reasons that bring people to our courts are as varied as the people themselves. All too often, however, a trip to the courthouse is the result of an unhappy event or unmanageable problem. A conversation with a nice elderly couple drove this point home for me. They were there to do something they never imagined they would have to do. Distraught and not knowing where else to go, they were there to have their adult son declared incapacitated.
Although as sad as some of these cases were, I also was reminded that courts are problem-solving agents and do bring happiness to some. In fact, when I told one lady that I knew the courthouse was not always a place of happiness, she remarked, "I like this place. This is where I got my divorce last week!”
It is not only important that we listen to people, but we also need to be careful about using too much legalese. For example, when I asked one woman if she was a party to the litigation, she remarked, "I don’t know about you, but that ain’t no party in there.”
As I was talking with these folks in the courthouses, I told them this is not just one of those surveys where nothing happens. We are going to use the information we learned in Osage and St. Louis counties – and in the other counties in which we are conducting surveys over the next few years – to see what we are doing well and what we can improve. This is part of our ongoing effort to continue to make Missouri’s courts better for everyone.
One such improvement that has been very successful has been the identification of areas in which the courts’ traditional "one size fits all” approach has given way to a broader, problem-solving approach. The need for a particular problem-solving court always has been driven by the creative ideas in local courts. This transition started with the development of "family courts.” Then the first drug court division was established in Jackson County. Now, we have specialized dockets for people dealing with DWIs, mental health issues and nonsupport issues. We also have dockets addressing the special needs of our veterans – the newest of which was established July 31 right here in Boone County. Each of these specialized court dockets reflects a conscious decision to focus on the person rather than just the legal problem – with the goal of bringing permanent positive change to individual lives.
I am proud to say Missouri now has more than 13,150 treatment court graduates. They have had their self-esteem restored and have become productive members of society and of their families. And just as important, every one of the thousands of lives that has been changed by Missouri’s treatment courts is a lifetime of crime and incarceration that has been avoided. When treatment courts work – and we know they do – everyone wins.
Another specialty court with which I am personally involved is truancy court. So many of our other specialty courts focus on individuals after problems have manifested themselves, but truancy courts focus on effective intervention for youngsters when trouble signs first arise. Wearing my robe, I volunteer every Thursday morning at a middle school, not only to help "my kids” learn about the importance of regular school attendance, but also to help them realize that they are the captains of their own ships and that they can steer away from any course that otherwise might take them toward criminal activity. I hope more of you – lawyers and judges alike – consider developing this important specialty court in your local schools.
In addition to specialty courts, we also have developed specialty judges.
My colleague Judge Zel Fischer has been active in developing ASTAR judges, who voluntarily take intensive educational courses to become more familiar with the science and technology issues that may arise in cases. If you have such a case, let the circuit court know that you would like to have an ASTAR judge assigned.
We also are exploring the possibility of creating specialized dockets or judicial assignments for cases involving complex issues so that, if all the parties agree, judges with specialized training and experience can be assigned regardless of where the case was filed. We are only beginning to develop this idea and welcome your thoughts about how such a program would best meet your clients’ needs. At the end of the day, all of these – and many, many more – are expressions of our common commitment to make Missouri’s courts better for everyone.
These developments also reflect society’s changing expectations of the role of courts. Today, people today expect immediate access to everything. You, too, have come to expect to communicate with courts with that same immediacy. As you may know, adapting to technology has been a very long process for the courts. Since we began in 1994, our progress has been limited by the availability of funding and other resources.
Case.net has been statewide since the spring of 2008, and we began
implementing e-filing just two years ago. Today, the Missouri eFiling
System is being used in every appellate court and 16 trial courts. We plan to add 12 more counties to the eFiling System later this year and 30 additional counties next year.
I am really proud of this system, and you should be too. Like Case.net, our eFiling System is unique to Missouri and is being built entirely in-house by the technology staff at our fine state courts administrator’s office.
But you are the primary users of that system, and we depend on your comments and suggestions.
If you have not already done so, I urge you to register to use the Missouri eFiling System. Even if you practice predominantly in an area not yet using e-filing, if you are registered, secure Case.net will let you see nonconfidential documents in cases throughout the state. It is free, and you soon will wonder how you ever got along without it. You can learn more by visiting our Missouri Courts booth in the exhibition area.
As important as e-filing is to lawyers and judges, it can be an important means of increasing public access to the courts as well. And that is why I am so excited to announce a new feature of our eFiling System that is a step in that direction. Currently, the public only can see electronic case documents by using the public access terminal at the court in which those documents were filed. But we anticipate that, by the end of next month, anyone will be able to come into any courthouse and use the terminal to see any public case document in the Missouri eFiling System. Increasing public access to – and understanding of – the courts is essential to the long-term success of our judicial system.
Unfortunately, research tells us that the public largely misunderstands what we do. And we have no one to blame but ourselves, for who is in a better position to teach people than we lawyers and judges who live in the justice system every day? Our government can never function properly if the people, by whom and for whom it exists, do not understand how our three branches of government check and balance each other. Thomas Jefferson agreed when he said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
It is sad that people are able to name three Kardashian sisters, but they cannot name the three branches of government. And they might be able to recount all the details of "Duck Dynasty,” but they have no understanding of how judges decide cases. Perhaps reality is not as entertaining as reality television. But we should not be discouraged.
Instead, we must rise to the challenge to find better ways to help people understand that their judicial system exists to protect their rights and give them a safe, civil environment in which to resolve their most pressing disputes.
I know how much work the lawyers in this state have put into civic education over the years, under the strong leadership of Millie Aulbur at The Missouri Bar. But we judges need to do more to step up to the plate as well. And so my colleagues and I at the Supreme Court are doing what we can to help judges make a difference.
Under the enthusiastic guidance of Judge Patty Breckenridge, our civic education program is going strong. We now have about 100 people – probably many of you in this room! – advancing the judiciary’s civic education efforts. Like the efforts of the Bar, this committee’s intent is to provide easy-to-use presentations and supporting materials to help judges deliver effective programs about courts to groups ranging from young schoolchildren to adults. If this sounds like a massive effort, it is. But it must be, if we are to succeed in educating Missourians about their justice system.
Finally, even though we must extend our education efforts, I believe Missourians trust their courts and have confidence in the decisions we make. That trust, however, cannot be taken for granted and must be protected by every person in this room and in this profession.
To honor the people who need us the most, we must continue to ensure that our justice system includes judges in whom the public has confidence … judges who will decide cases impartially, based solely on the law and the facts … judges who are not driven by money or politics. As my former colleague Ray Price noted, the only agenda that should drive our judges is a commitment to the rule of law. We must focus on justice first, and justice for all, if we are to make Missouri’s courts better for everyone.
As Robert Kennedy said, these are interesting times, and every one of us has an obligation to safeguard and enhance the public’s trust. This obligation is so important that it is embedded in both of our codes of conduct.
And so, during this next year – starting with your family and friends and local organizations – I challenge each one of you to teach them to appreciate the importance of courts in their lives and our democracy. And at the same time, we also must listen to them about how we can make things better. For we are but temporary guardians of this system, and we must ensure that its legacy continues.
Together, we can make Missouri’s courts better for everyone. Thank you.