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Russell prepares to take over Supreme Court chief justice duties

Incoming Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell sat for an interview in the main courtroom Wednesday. She will begin serving her two-year term July 1.

Incoming Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell sat for an interview in the main courtroom Wednesday. She will begin serving her two-year term July 1. Photo by Julie Smith.

On Monday, Mary R. Russell becomes the Missouri Supreme Court’s next chief justice.

But she’s one of seven judges on the state’s highest court, and said Wednesday she was taking copies of the U.S. Supreme Court’s two rulings on same-sex marriage issues when she went home Wednesday night, to read them and see how they might impact Missouri court cases.

“Truly, we are bound — to whatever extent — (by) relevant decisions that come from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Russell, the state high court’s next chief justice, told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

The Missouri court heard arguments earlier this year — but has not ruled on yet — a challenge to lower court rulings that a Highway Patrolman’s partner isn’t entitled to death benefits because the two men were not married to each other at the time the trooper was killed in a helicopter accident.

“My personal feelings on the case are irrelevant,” she said. “We take an oath to follow the law (and) it’s really unethical for me to comment on it.”

Russell, 54, grew up on a Ralls County dairy farm, near Hannibal, and didn’t even consider a legal career until she was working as a Hannibal Courier-Post newspaper reporter, and found the courthouse and its cases to be fascinating.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in communications and print media in 1980, from what is now Truman State University, Kirksville, and her law degree from the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1983, Russell was part of a Hannibal law firm until she applied for, and Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed her to, a seat on the appeals court’s Eastern District in St. Louis in 1995.

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

“I’m very humbled to be elected the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri,” she told reporters during a 55-minute group interview in the court’s main courtroom Wednesday afternoon. “It’s a position that, under our court system, comes with many more responsibilities — but not any great power.

“I still have one vote, just like all the other judges on our court, in deciding our cases and in ruling on administrative matters.”

The chief justice is the court’s — and the state courts system’s — chief administrator, who gets a slightly bigger paycheck, more paperwork duties and “many more invitations” to make speeches, she said, “and I’ll try to honor as many of those as I can.”

She added: “It’s still a team approach here at this court.

“It takes four votes to make any changes around here or rule on anything — it takes four votes to have a majority in a case (ruling) and it takes four votes to change a parking space.”

Russell said she’s consulted with Judges Patricia Breckenridge and Zel Fischer — who should be her next two successors — in outlining a multi-year list of priorities for the Supreme Court to tackle.

That list includes:

• Providing civics education, helping Missourians understand the courts’ role as the third branch of government.

• Establishing and expanding “specialty courts,” such as drug courts or veterans courts, when a local court thinks it would help lower crime and help residents improve their lives.

• Expanding electronic filing, so that more records are available online and fewer paper documents are required.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court — where the president designates the chief justice and, if the U.S. Senate approves, it’s a lifetime appointment — the Missouri court’s chief justice job rotates every two years.

But, even though the rotation establishes the order the seven judges will follow in getting the job, the court actually must elect that person to be the next chief.

Nearly 30 years ago, a dispute among judges resulted in a vote where Warren Welliver of Columbia was passed over and not elected chief justice, as he had expected.

Russell said the 1980s-type dissension among judges just doesn’t happen today.

“I’m blessed to be surrounded by my great colleagues, with a very congenial relationship,” she said. “Despite disagreements on opinions, when it’s all said and done, we get along very well.”

She said the court functions in an “apolitical” manner — even though some of its judges ran as political candidates for outstate judicial offices.

“We don’t think in those terms,” she explained. “Each case is different (and) how cases break down when we actually voted — I don’t even keep track of that.

“Judges are not to be politicians — and we are not.”

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