I had the honor of interviewing the Honorable William D. Missouri for this issue’s Waymaker. Judge Missouri served with distinction as the chief judge and the administrative judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Maryland, the administrative judge for Prince George’s County Maryland District Court, special legal counsel to the Office of the Prince George’s County Executive, Assistant State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County, and a mediator and arbitrator for JAMS. His impressive credentials include serving as past chair of the ABA Judicial Division, chair-elect of the Senior Lawyers Division, past chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges, and past chair of the Standing Committee on Gun Violence. He is also a Life Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a member of countless other sections and committees of the ABA and numerous other bar associations. Judge Missouri’s efforts to level the playing field to address inequalities experienced by persons of color in the judicial and legal systems in Maryland are significant. He has passionately pursued the road less traveled through a commitment of service to the community. Judge Missouri exemplifies the term “Waymaker.”
What were the greatest obstacles or challenges that you faced growing up and in pursuing the legal profession?
I was born in Washington, D.C., but I grew up in Dalzell, South Carolina, raised by my maternal grandparents, Parish and Esther Mack Glover, after my parents separated. My grandparents were very religious people and they instilled in me their religious beliefs. I hold tight to those beliefs today.
When I was growing up in Sumter County School District #2, “colored” or “Negro” children had to walk to school. Unlike our white counterparts, no bus transportation was provided by the school system. There were three classes of people recognized by Sumter County School District #2: (1) white kids who got new buses almost yearly, (2) kids called “Turks” who received the buses that were handed down from the whites, and (3) the “colored” or “Negro” kids who had no bus transportation. They had to walk or get to school the best way they could. I had to walk five miles to the first school I was enrolled in. Eventually, my grandmother saw that I could not keep up with the older kids because the distance was just too far. She enrolled me in a school closer to our home, which was inferior academically. For several years, I attended inferior schools, first Mount Joshua and later Mount Nebo. By the time I transferred back to my original school, buses had been allowed for the Negro children and we were at least able to get to school without the exhausting walk.
When I was eight years old, I went to sleep and woke up one Saturday morning unable to move my body. The doctor was called and came to the house. I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. Slowly I regained movement in my upper extremities, but I still couldn’t walk. I couldn’t walk for about a year. When I began to learn to walk, I had to crawl first, then use crutches made by one of my uncles, and ultimately walk without any prosthesis.
The idea of a legal career was the furthest thing from my mind, although my granddad, before he died, opined that “Bill will be the first lawyer in this family.” He was a fantastic granddad and I loved him tremendously. Anyway, frankly I had no idea what a lawyer was or did or what it took to become a lawyer. I just knew that it was a great thing to hear and if he said it, I knew it was something that I should strive for. When my grandfather died on the fourth of July in 1950, the thought of becoming a lawyer went out of my mind.
A few years following my grandfather’s death, I returned to Washington, D.C., to live with my mother. I attended junior and senior high school to the 11th grade in Washington, D.C., before joining the U.S. Air Force. While on a high altitude flight, it was discovered that I was really anemic and the choice was to try to correct that or to provide me with a medical discharge. The Air Force was unwilling to provide me with the time to correct it. At that juncture, I did not have a high school diploma. The Air Force wouldn’t invest in the extensive medical care or the necessary educational courses. Frankly speaking, I think they figured that I really wasn’t worth it.
I returned to Washington, D.C., and started to work for Marriott Corp. doing business as Hot Shoppes at Washington National Airport. After a year, I returned to South Carolina and graduated from Ebenezer High School.
I was working at the U.S. Post Office in 1963 when the March on Washington occurred. After listening to Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]’s speech, I decided that I needed to get an education to prove that Dr. King was right about chances, so I took classes at night. Initially, I was pursuing accounting. It was slow and tedious taking three-hour credits at night while working 12-hour days. I decided that I needed to go to school full time, so I quit my job and enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. I then transferred from the community college to Bowie State University and majored in political science. I decided to pursue an advanced degree and visited Ohio State University, where I had applied to their PhD program. Upon arriving at Ohio State, there was an official introduction program and overview of the college. After sitting through an official recruiting program, we were allowed to check out the huge campus. I walked into a law lecture, where there were about 300 students in the class. The professor was opining about foreseeability and views of Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the New York Supreme Court. I was smitten from that day on. Coming back to my campus, although it was late, I applied to the University of Maryland School of Law. The rest is history. Admittedly, I had no long-term plan about becoming a member of the legal profession. It was a spontaneous decision, but that seed that my granddad planted a long time ago had proudly come to fruition. I can’t tell you that I wanted to become a member of the legal profession for any particular purpose, but I wanted to be helpful to my community. I wanted to represent those who were incapable of navigating the legal system on their own and who needed help but could not afford most attorneys. In other words, I was going to provide legal services to the poor and those who, although not poor, couldn’t afford the going rate for lawyers. Well, two days after I started law school, I married. Our first child, Danielle, was born a year before I graduated. I knew I was going to have to find work as soon as I graduated from law school and I was not going to be able to practice that laudatory type of law that I had envisioned. The State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County gave me my first legal job as a law clerk. I am ever so grateful to Arthur A. “Bud” Marshall for his guidance, friendship, and tutelage along the way.
As an Assistant State’s Attorney, I received several offers from private firms, but I held off because we now had two children. Our second child, Naomi, was born in 1981. I was hesitant about moving on. Frankly, I was afraid to go into private practice. Moreover, I really enjoyed prosecuting and just when I thought I was going to go into private practice, the chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission approached me about applying for a judgeship. I said, “No, you have got to be kidding. I haven’t thought about being a judge. I don’t think I’m the type of person that should be a judge. I think I’m not really qualified to be a judge. I just want to practice law.” That was not the end of it.
That Judicial Nominating Committee chair, Benjamin Wolman (deceased), began turning his attention to my wife, Delores. He told her how he thought that I belonged on the bench, how I was doing a wonderful job as an Assistant State’s Attorney, I had prosecuted death penalty cases, etc. I was still saying no. Eventually Delores convinced me to apply to the District Court of Maryland in 1984. I was surprised to be approved by the commission. I was even more surprised when Governor Harry Hughes appointed me to the Fifth District for Prince George’s County. I took the oath of office in July 1985. In December 1986, our third child, Natalie Olga Missouri, the only other lawyer in the family, was born.
How would you describe your tenure as the first African American administrative judge for the Prince George’s County District Court and as the first African American administrative judge for the Prince George’s County Circuit Court and the Seventh Administrative Circuit? What goals did you pursue?
I never thought about being the “first” administrative judge of African American descent for the Prince George’s County District Court. Actually, I never thought of being an administrative judge. I was going along doing my work and enjoying life when Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the District Court, called me down to Annapolis and indicated he was appointing me as administrative judge to replace Judge Graydon McKee, who had been elevated to the Circuit Court. Initially, there was some dissatisfaction from judges who had been on the court when I was appointed. Suffice it to say, because of the views instilled in me by my grandparents, I continued to work hard and I made efforts to include the judges’ view before making changes. I was elevated to the Circuit Court with an appointment on December 21, 1987, and took the oath of office on January 14, 1988.
When I became the County Administrative Judge for Prince George’s County, there were two administrative judges for the court. The Administrative Office of the Seventh Judicial Circuit (Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s, and Prince George’s Counties) resided in Prince George’s County. Judge McKee, who was also my friend, was appointed the Circuit Administrative Judge on the same day. There were judges who had been on the court for 15 or more years prior to my appointment and they were less than thrilled. As the County Administrative Judge, you are responsible for the day-to-day operations in the courthouse. This presented a problem for me because with the Circuit Administrative Judge being in the same courthouse, it was difficult for judges and employees to accept me as a decision maker. Was this because I was African American? I’m not sure, but the process bothered me and I was glad when change came.
I wanted to streamline court operations and ensure that each judge received a fair share of desirable cases. Unfortunately, the administrators who served before Judge McKee and I were appointed allowed judges to ask for newsworthy cases. From 1992 to 1997, I was able to change some culture of the court due to great cooperation between the Circuit Administrative Judge and me I wanted to set up a fair and equitable system for hiring people when positions became available in the court. In that regard, I implemented a process whereby there was a screening committee and an interviewing committee. The interviewing committee had to send me at least three names for every open position. Previously, people were hired because they were someone’s relative, someone’s neighbor, or someone’s friend. I made an administrative decision that all positions be posted. As a result, the court began to reflect a little more of the community it served.
In 1995, the Honorable Robert Mack Bell became the chief judge of the Maryland court system. Ultimately, Chief Judge Bell and others decided that we would pursue timeliness as the number one aim of court services. Thereafter, the Differentiated Case Management System was implemented. Each County Administrative Judge was responsible for submitting plans for the processing of cases on various tracks after appropriate triaging.
In 1997, Chief Judge Bell consolidated the Circuit Administrative Judge position with the County Administrative Judge position in particular counties. I was selected to serve as the Circuit Administrative Judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit while maintaining my role as the County Administrative Judge. In that role, I was confronted with the possibility that the judges in southern Maryland would not take kindly to an African American being the head of the Circuit. Instead, the problems came from the judges on my own court who had seniority but not authority. I placed new people in charge of various sections of the court—criminal, civil, juvenile, and family—because it was my belief that we needed new ideas to go along with the changes that were coming. The resistance was of a passive-aggressive nature, which is the worst kind. I learned a long time before I became an administrative judge that when you know that you need to have votes on anything, you always have a meeting before the meeting and in that meeting, learn who your allies are. Then you can prevail at the second meeting. Furthermore, I learned not to present the idea myself but to find one persuasive person who shared my view on an issue and then have that person present the idea to the group. Then, when the vote comes, the other person will carry the day and the individuals who are opposed to you will not know that actually it is you who wishes to have these changes made. However, if it becomes necessary, you have to exercise executive authority and say, “It’s going to be this way.” But I am a firm believer that the best way to govern is by consensus whenever possible.
How would you characterize your previous term as chair of the ABA Judicial Division and the vision you had for that year?
I thought my term as chair of the ABA Judicial Division was rewarding, but before I could become chair of the Judicial Division, I had to become chair of my conference, the National Conference of State Trial Judges (NCSTJ). I love the NCSTJ because people in that conference really understand the day-to-day operations of the court and what trial judges have to endure if they take their oaths seriously. I am proud of my many friendships made during my work in the NCSTJ. As far as being the chair of the Judicial Division, it is a distinct honor and privilege. I was humbled to be able to serve in that capacity. I thank all of my peers in all of the Conferences for allowing me the honor of serving them for a year. I wanted to concentrate on the little things that we do without realizing that we do them to the detriment of fairness and equity within the court system. Therefore, I concentrated my year on highlighting implicit bias. Implicit bias is the “elephant” in any courtroom and it’s that elephant we must get rid of one bite at a time. Most of us have biases, but we tend not to recognize or realize those biases. Judges must recognize the biases that they have and they must strive to overcome them. For example, there is a bias that just about every judge has regarding how one is dressed when he or she comes to court. You may say that it doesn’t matter how one dresses as long as it’s not obscene when the truth is judges have a different view of the person dressed in a suit than they do of the person dressed in athletic gear. It doesn’t mean that the person wearing the athletic gear is less intelligent, less honorable, or not going to tell the truth. The bias is that the suit wearer took the time to put on a suit and tie and therefore it is highly unlikely that this person would not be forthcoming. Obviously, that is a bias that has no basis in fact or history. There are other biases such as a person speaking with an accent. It is automatically assumed that he or she won’t understand the system. These things are really inappropriate for those of us who take the oath to serve the public and we have to be very careful about it.
If you were asked to highlight the hallmark of your service as a judge, what would you say?
The highlight of my service as a judge would be initiating problem-solving courts in Prince George’s County, streamlining court operations, implementing the IT departments within the county, changing an Assignment Office to an Office of Calendar Management, and recovering from the fire that devastated a portion of the courthouse. The thing that I’m most proud of is initiating a Veterans’ Appreciation Day.
I learned prior to my retirement that our county had never honored the veterans in Prince George’s County who served in Vietnam. Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to institute and establish a Veterans’ Appreciation Day for all of the county’s veterans who had served on behalf of their community. The first such veterans’ program was brought together in May 2010. I’m thankful that the Honorable Sheila Tillerson Adams, who followed me as the administrative judge, has continued the Veterans’ Appreciation Program as a yearly event.
What advice would you like to emphasize to other lawyers and judges about the importance of their respective roles?
I think a lawyer’s role in society is extremely important. I know it’s an old adage, but people always ask why do you think Shakespeare said, “First let’s kill all the lawyers”? Lawyers are the people responsible for moving society forward. If it had not been for lawyers, Plessy v. Ferguson would not have been heard. The Scottsboro Boys would not have received any type of fairness. Brown v. Board of Education would not have come about. There are so many things that lawyers have done to benefit society. I urge lawyers to remember that they are part of a profession and that they should not be less than professional with one another. It seems that somewhere along the way those attending law school and becoming lawyers have forgotten civility or, I dare say, maybe they never learned it and, if they didn’t, then that’s the law school’s fault. Assuming, arguendo, that the law schools still stress civility, I don’t know what happens when the students begin to practice because it seems that civility takes a backseat to bullying, grumpiness, and rudeness. So I would urge lawyers to remember that civility is a part of our honored profession. And for those senior lawyers who fall into the same trenches that the new lawyers are in by being rude and uncooperative, they need to be reminded twice that ours is a genteel profession. They need to treat each other with dignity and respect and at all times be civil.
As for judges, their roles are very important. Judges are, for lack of a better word, the “referee.” You are the person who sets the tone for cases that come into your courtroom. Judges, in my opinion, must always get to court before the lawyers do. Lawyers should not have to wait for a judge to arrive. Judges should maintain order in their courtroom in a most respectful fashion, not as a bully and not by threatening to hold people in contempt but by gaining the respect of the lawyers. One way that you gain the respect of the lawyers is with a work ethic. Sometimes judges feel that “I’ve gotten to the bench. I no longer have to work hard. I no longer have to put in long days. I no longer have to read the law. I no longer have to know the law.” That is very unfortunate. I believe that a judge who neglects his or her learning side is a poor judge and a judge who fails to show up to court on time does not deserve the respect of the bar at all. Judges who take twice as long to try a case as other judges, maybe it’s something that can’t be helped, but it seems to me that you are there to work and if you work from the time that you should be on the bench, things will flow better.
Judges should get the respect of the bar but they have to earn it, and earning the respect of the bar means that you treat everyone with dignity and respect. Allow no name calling in your courtroom and be courteous when addressing the attorneys. Our roles are extremely important as the guardians of the justice and fairness that everyone seeks. We can’t always predict how things are going to turn out. We can’t always please everyone with our decisions, but we must make our decisions fairly, equitably, and based only upon the evidence.
Also, we must not give the citizens any reason to question our ability to be fair and equitable. Those questions usually arise if, in fact, there is a relationship that you don’t disclose or if you do disclose, you refuse to recuse yourself. I’ve found from my view that it is always best to recuse myself even though I know I can be fair and impartial, but if one thinks that my fairness may be impacted by a relationship, I err on the side of caution and do the recusal. No, recusals are not fun and they always put a burden on others. The way that is done is just to switch dockets with another judge and no one will get hurt or feel disenfranchised. Most of our judges are fantastic people. They do an outstanding job. They work hard and understand that they play a crucial role in this society. For those judges, I applaud them and say, God bless.
Thank you very much for this opportunity. I am honored that you wished to interview me at all. After all, I’m just a country boy a long way from home.