When you were a child, did you ever imagine that you would be chief justice of a Supreme Court?
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born in Philadelphia. I’m legally blind, but they didn’t discover it until I went to school at age five. When I was 13, they took me to the Home for the Blind, and the top ophthalmologist in Philadelphia told my mother I would not be able to go to college. I should go to the Home for the Blind. Then my mother, who had cancer, took me aside and said, “Son . . . I’m not going to be there. Your father can’t afford to keep you, and your brothers will have their own families. So you’ll need to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or else you’re not going to survive.” So it was very good advice. I had difficulty reading, however. I just applied myself and I overcompensated by doing very well in math. Because of Sputnik in 1957 and the nation’s focus on math and science, my achievement in math was valued.
My assumption, though, is your mother was a teacher and, as the child of teachers, I know education was very important in my family. So, for your mother to be told that her son, because of this condition, was never going to go to college, that must have been heartbreaking.
It was. She was born in 1908 and, in the United States, at that time, there was discrimination of Jewish people in employment, housing, and some segments of education. In her and my father’s generation, the only way out of poverty was education.
Besides your mother, who else influenced you in your life?
I was lucky to meet many people who were willing to help me, starting with Phillip McClaskey, my high school math teacher. He procured a scholarship for me to attend college and take math courses while I was in high school. I was also very fortunate to get to know my father’s friend, the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals. He took a great interest in helping African Americans, women, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. In law school, Professor David Becker and the faculty and staff were very helpful in providing accommodations. Indeed, when the chair of the bar examiners did not allow me to have a reader to take the bar examination, the law school, with others in the bar, helped get that decision reversed. That was in 1973, 17 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. These accommodations are still in effect and are provided by the bar examiners today.
So, how did you end up going to Legal Services?
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in west Philadelphia and went to public schools. I had firsthand knowledge of poverty that stayed with me the rest of my life. In law school, I volunteered with the Welfare Rights Organization and the Legal Aid Society. In 1973, when I graduated [from] law school, there were no jobs at Legal Aid. But in 1975, the new director, David Lander, took a chance and hired me as a staff attorney.
So, that’s how you got started at Legal Services?
Yes, and after one year I became the head of the Consumer Unit, and then I became the executive director in five years.
That was very quick.
I was 32 years old and, given my background, it seemed that what came before prepared me for my position. At the time I became director in 1980, the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, indicated his desire to eliminate Legal Services, which provided me a great challenge.
I understand that.
I had a plan of (1) making sure no one who worked for legal aid was below the poverty line and all were provided a fair wage and benefits, (2) recruiting and sustaining a high-quality legal staff, and (3) finally, to make this happen, diversifying and raising the resources to accomplish this goal.
Well, you did an amazing job with Legal Services. So, I will say that I was surprised that you left Legal Services, which is such a passion of yours, to go on the bench, where you now cannot advocate at all. What was that transition like for you?
I never expected to be picked. Under the Nonpartisan Court Plan, I was selected by the Appellate Judicial Commission to be on a panel that would be forwarded to the governor. That would be very good for the program. I believe I may have been the most surprised person in St. Louis when the governor chose me.
To put that in context, I felt it was important to raise positive visibility of legal aid to sustain a great staff.
I never knew that. When you took over as director of Legal Services, what were your challenges?
One of the main challenges was to let the community know what a great program and staff we had. In the ’60s, we were seen as controversial. Governor Warren Hearnes had vetoed the Legal Services grant. And after a great deal of effort by Senator John Danforth and Bill McCalpin, two great people, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donald Rumsfeld, reversed that decision. At the same time, we had lost our United Way grant and a number of other sources of income.
If I was to raise money for the program, I had to let the community know how great of a program we had, which required more positive visibility and to build the reputation of our staff.
How did you decide to go about getting respect for Legal Services?
My mentor, David Lander, the executive director, urged me and Doreen Dodson to get involved with the bar associations. With that in mind, I also got involved and networked with the community at large.
I didn’t know that was your thinking.
That was my whole motivation. I had never wanted to . . . I never intended to leave.
Okay. Now then, I just thought, well, that’s interesting that you would become a judge because you are such a fierce advocate and so passionate.
Then in the process, you get these supporters and people who tell you, “You can’t . . . when the governor picks you, you cannot say no.” Well, the governor picked me.
So, was that your appointment to the court of appeals?
Yes. But I realized that the Court of Appeals was like being the middle child. I thought I could do more on the Supreme Court.
So, you went on the Court of Appeals in what year?
1998. And I was on the Court of Appeals for four years.
You were appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor [Robert Lee] Holden under the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan. But I would be remiss if I did not ask you about 2004. The judges on the Missouri Supreme Court are appointed under the Nonpartisan Court Plan . . . you were running for retention and some outside groups challenged your retention.
Did you have any inkling that was going to happen before it happened?
No, not until 17 days before the actual election.
And under our system that puts the candidate at an extreme disadvantage because judges don’t have a campaign fund. So, what was your first reaction when you found out that there was someone out there urging people to vote no for your retention?
Well, I could not let that happen. I was very lucky since I had been the legal aid director in the eastern part of the state and had a statewide reputation with the people of Missouri. In addition, domestic violence advocates, minorities, the disabled, and religious groups who believed in social justice spontaneously and actively supported me. With that support, 62.3 percent voted yes to retain me.
Do you know why you were targeted?
No, except to say it’s a sign of the times.
But you weren’t thrown out?
My reputation in the state preceded me, and I was very heartened by the extraordinary support of the people of Missouri in 17 days.
That’s happened in other states. It happened to Penny White in Tennessee. And I think that they do use the element of surprise. You have nothing organized and then suddenly there is this campaign and you have to get up and running. And I do think it’s a testament to the fact that you are so well known throughout this state.
I felt it was very important to be retained, not just for me but for the Nonpartisan Court Plan and the people of Missouri.
I want to get to one other subject and this has to do with today. When you look out now, people are talking about the issue of income inequality. I want to talk about income inequality and access to justice and your thoughts on those topics. And we’ll start with access to justice. Do you see it getting better? Worse?
A folk singer once said, “freedom doesn’t come on the wings of a bird—you have to fight for it each generation at a time.”
Why was the $30 increase important?
The quest for justice is at the core of our profession and we, as lawyers and judges, must keep that foremost in our vision. If we do that, poor and rich alike will receive equal justice under law.
The dream of equal justice is not now a reality. We are making strides in that direction with the support of the bar and the community at large in gaining resources to help thousands of abused women and children, the elderly, and dispossessed to have their simple plea for justice heard. As Judge A. Leon Higginbotham once said, “Always attempt to see those human beings who become invisible to most people, and that [way] you always try to hear the pleas of those persons who, despite their pain and suffering, have become voiceless and forgotten.”
Why do you think the issue of income disparity is important to the justice system?
It is programs like legal aid and public defender that are critical in delivering services to the poor that will make justice for all a reality.