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Russell urges lawmakers to follow courts' successes

January 23, 2015 at 5:00 a.m. | Updated January 23, 2015 at 5:00 a.m.
People in the gallery applaud "Phillip," during the State of the Judiciary speech Thursday. Chief Justice Mary Russell identified him because he's benefited by initiatives in and out of the court. Phillip served twice in Iraq and was medically discharged, then - suffering from both mental health and substance abuse issues - was arrested for misdemeanor drug possession and got into a fight with a court bailiff. Russell said Phillip credits Boone County's veterans treatment court program with "changing the direction of his life." Others in the front row include a group of students from Lewis & Clark Middle School where Russell presides over truancy court on Thursday mornings.

Mid-Missouri lawmakers generally praised state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell and the State of the Judiciary speech she gave Thursday morning.

"It's a hard speech to give for any judge, because they're speaking to an audience of legislators," state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said after Thursday's speech, adding judges "can't opine too much on legislation and how to change the law."

In her 25-minute address, Russell highlighted continuing efforts to use more automation in court operations, including public access to the court system, and the court system's growing involvement in child abuse and neglect cases and treatment court options.

"As an attorney, it's good to see that the Supreme Court's focused on making sure that the courts operate smoothly and efficiently," State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, told the News Tribune.

"And, as a Missourian, I think it's refreshing to see that the court cares about the people who are actually there as citizens."

She noted one highlight of her legal career is truancy court. Most Thursday mornings, Russell can be found at the Lewis and Clark Middle School's truancy court.

"This positive reinforcement program teaches children the importance of regular school attendance, helping them realize the benefit that education can have in their future," she said.

Russell thanked the General Assembly for its past support of court issues.

"While we in the judiciary continue striving to be innovative in improving Missouri's courts, we appreciate your efforts to improve the laws of Missouri," she explained. "Last year, for example - in cooperation with The Missouri Bar, the courts, prosecutors and defense counsel - you passed the first comprehensive update of the state's criminal code in 35 years."

Freshman Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, added: "I was pleased with ... the offer as well for all of us to work together, which is always great for Missourians."

Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, liked several of Russell's points. "She talked about everything," he said, "that the courts are improving, they're doing more electronic communications, more ways for people to communicate with the court system (and) they're helping young people with the CASA system."

Russell encouraged lawmakers to learn more about the court-appointed special advocates program, also known as CASA, which marks its 35th anniversary in Missouri this year.

"It is the only program in which everyday citizens, who - after rigorous screening and special training - are appointed by judges to help determine what is in the best interest of abused or neglected children," the chief justice said. "By getting to know the children and their families well, these special advocates provide stable connections for the children while becoming the "eyes and ears' of the court.

"Children with CASA volunteers are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care and are more likely to be adopted."

In her speech, the chief justice told lawmakers: "How we effect meaningful change in the lives of Missourians will be a part of how we all - the Legislature and the courts - will be judged by history.

"Finding ways to better serve our state requires us to be a part of something bigger than any of us."

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said: "It was a very - not conciliatory, because I don't think there's anything to be conciliatory for - but I think it was a very cooperative speech."

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said Russell's "perspective on the judiciary is incredibly valuable to the Legislature and Missourians. I have never heard Judge Russell speak where she did not provide candid insights, and today was no exception."


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