Russell wants judiciary to help with civics education

Judges are known most for making decisions in legal matters, resolving legal disputes that affect people’s lives.

“It is our job, when cases come before us, to rule on their constitutionality and interpret the law as presented to us,” Supreme Court Judge Mary R. Russell told reporters last week, as she talked about beginning her two-year term, today, as the court’s next chief justice.

“That’s a serious responsibility — that we all take very seriously.”

But Russell also sees judges as teachers and civic leaders.

“Working on civics education — that’s a real passion of mine,” she said, “being able to go out to the public and speak to them, and help them learn about why our United States Constitution is so important.

“I think that, unfortunately, that’s an area that everyone needs to have a little refresher course in — and I think our students need to hear from people who work with the

Constitution every day.”

Part of that education, she said, is the reminder that both the state and federal constitutions designate the judiciary as a co-equal part of government.

But in Missouri, the court system gets less than one percent of the state’s general revenue budget.

How does that equal “co-equal”?

“I feel like we’re equal because of the power the Constitution gives us — and that is the checks and balances,” Russell explained.

“Our primary job as judges is making sure that we provide fair forums for people to have their disputes resolved — that we give timely decisions, that we write intelligent decisions that follow the rule of law (and) that we’re respectful of the litigants.”

Interpreting the law doesn’t mean rewriting it, she said.

Instead, “interpreting” the law involves taking the legal arguments from different parties in a lawsuit, and resolving them based on what the Constitution says and what lawmakers have written — unless the laws go against the constitutional requirements.

Russell was asked why judges don’t tell lawmakers that a proposed law might be unconstitutional — before it gets passed.

A baseball fan, she answered the question with a sports metaphor.

“We don’t swing at pitches until they’re thrown at us,” Russell said. “I don’t feel like I have any authority to step across the street and give them any advice.

“They can handle their job — and we can handle ours.”

The Supreme Court supervises operations of the entire state courts system.

Russell said the high court is talking about taking surveys of people as they leave courthouses in both rural and urban areas.

“We’re going to ask them how well we’re doing,” she said.“We can see how we can do our jobs better.”

But, do they really want to hear from the person who just lost a court case?

“One of my colleagues on the trial court once said, ‘We’re not in the happiness business,’ and it’s true that not everybody can win when they come to our courts,” Russell said.

“What we’ve found ... is that, despite winning or losing, if you feel that you got a fair hearing, that the judge listened to you, you were treated with respect and the decision was made timely — (most) feel that justice was done and (they’ve) had their day in court.”

The idea still is in its early stages — waiting for more details to be finalized before the survey-taking begins.

Like her predecessors, new Chief Justice Russell thinks the way Missouri chooses judges works well — with partisan elections in outstate areas, and appointed judges for the trial courts in metropolitan areas and in the appeals and Supreme Courts statewide.

“How (else) would a girl from rural Missouri ever become a judge on the Supreme Court, if we didn’t level the playing field that the Nonpartisan Court Plan promotes?” the Ralls County native and seventh-generation Missourian asked. “Being able to have a diversity on any court — rural/urban, woman/man, whatever other categories you want to establish — makes for a stronger court.

“Because if we were all cut out of the same cookie cutter, why would there be a need for seven judges?”

Each judge brings their own background and experiences to their work of trying to decide the state’s most difficult legal cases, Russell said.

She’s worked as a newspaper reporter in Hannibal, a state Senate speechwriter and, one year, a legislative assistant to then Senate President Pro Tem Norman Merrell and, after law school, a private practice lawyer in Hannibal until Gov. Mel Carnahan named her to the appeals court in St. Louis in 1995.

Gov. Bob Holden named her to the Supreme Court in 2004.

She succeeds Richard Teitelman, calling him “a wonderful chief justice. You can’t find anybody with more compassion and kindness.”

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