Following the path
Monday, April 29, 2013
The last time a Cole County native — Henry J. Westhues — became a Missouri Supreme Court judge, Paul Wilson’s parents had been married about two years.
Wilson, 51 — the third of McCormick and Lorna Wilson’s four children — was only about 3 when Westhues left the high court bench nine years after joining it.
The 118th person to be a Supreme Court judge in Missouri’s 192-year history, Wilson officially joined the court in January, but celebrated his formal installation on April 19.
Wilson was born and raised in Jefferson City, and graduated from Jefferson City High School in 1979 — then from Drury University in 1982.
“I love Jefferson City, and I’m very proud to be a native of this town,” he said.
His father was a lawyer and, for all of Paul’s youth, Jefferson City’s municipal judge.
“I cannot remember a time when I did not understand that I would be a lawyer,” Paul Wilson said, in an interview.
But he didn’t go to law school for several years after his college graduation, taking off instead for the East to try his hand at acting.
“I certainly, as I went through life, thought of everything I was doing as being before I went to law school,” he explained. “So, I really can’t remember making the decision (to go) — it just seemed like something I naturally would do when I finished doing whatever else it was I wanted to try.”
His first job after law school was as a law clerk for then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward D. “Chip” Robertson.
After a year in Jefferson City, he clerked for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich, in Lansing, Mich.
After a year there, he joined the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm in New York City.
Wilson recalled: “When I got to private practice in New York, (my career) clarified because the senior partners who spent time with me, and mentored me, always would say that their happiest days and their most fulfilling days as a lawyer had been early in their career when they ... had spent time as a government lawyer.”
In 1996, Wilson, his wife and two young daughters returned to Jefferson City, and he joined then-Attorney General Nixon’s staff — where he soon was given some of the state’s toughest cases.
“The lawyers in government have a duty,” he said, “to make sure that government does serve and that its power is not used inadvertently or unthoughtfully, to the detriment of the people.
“The government lawyers play a key role in making sure that those lines, drawn in the Constitution, are preserved.”
When Nixon became governor in 2009, Wilson left the attorney general’s office and served as senior counsel for Budget and Finance, and as director of the “Transform Missouri Project.”
Nixon named Wilson to the Cole County circuit judge’s post in January 2010, after Judge Richard Callahan resigned to become the U.S. attorney in St. Louis.
But Wilson lost the November 2010 election to Republican Dan Green, for the final four years of Callahan’s six-year term.
So he joined the Columbia-based Van Matre, Harrison, Hollis, Taylor and Bacon law firm, until he was selected from among 18 applicants to succeed Judge William Ray Price Jr. on the high court.
In his first three months on the high court, Wilson already has participated in a number of oral arguments, and has written one opinion.
Is there a difference between being a circuit judge and a Supreme Court judge?
“On one level, the jobs are the same,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to ensure that the laws the General Assembly passes, and the Constitution that the people have approved, are applied uniformly and equally and fairly — for everyone in the state regardless of who they are, what their station is in life or where they live.”
But day-to-day, he said, the jobs are very different, with a circuit judge given “enormous discretion (to) make decisions, where the law provides a range of lawful answers — and the trial judge has to find the answer that is best-supported by the facts within the range of answers the law allows.”
On the other hand, judges on the appeals and Supreme courts “decide only questions of law, (which) have only one right answer ... (even though) it’s seldom clear what that answer is.”
In addition to researching cases and writing opinions, Wilson noted, Supreme Court judges do a lot of administrative work, writing and managing the rules that guide operations of the court systems and the ethics rules lawyers are to follow.
Several of the speakers during Wilson’s installation program talked about his dedication to his work — especially when he was with the attorney general’s office from 1996-2009.
Wilson noted during the ceremony, and later in an interview, that his work “actually comes a pretty distant third behind home and church. But the truth is, that being a lawyer — and especially a litigator — is a very demanding calling.
“And those hours come at the expense of family all too often.”
Wilson said he wouldn’t have been as much of a success as a lawyer, “or as much of a public servant as I wanted to be, if I hadn’t had a wife and daughters who were willing to facilitate that.”
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