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New chief to focus on court’s outreach role

Catherine Perry is third woman in a row to lead St. Louis-based federal court

Chief U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry wants the public to know what judges do.

Chief Judge Catherine Perry points out some of the things she watches from her perch in the Eagleton Courthouse. Photo by Karen Elshout

Chief Judge Catherine Perry points out some of the things she watches from her perch in the Eagleton Courthouse. Photo by Karen Elshout

So as she begins her seven-year term as chief judge of the St. Louis-based federal court, she says she wants to focus on the court’s outreach efforts.

Perry is the third consecutive woman to serve as chief judge of the District Court in St. Louis. Judge Carol E. Jackson, whom Perry follows, became chief in 2002 after Judge Jean C. Hamilton completed her seven-year term.

Perry has long been involved in outreach efforts as a board member of The Judicial Learning Center Inc., a nonprofit that supports the 8th Circuit Judicial Learning Center and partners with the courts on educational activities.

The learning center houses permanent exhibits to teach students and members of the public about the role of the judiciary. It is on the first floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The board of directors of the nonprofit organization consists of lawyers and representatives from the District Court, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. As a judge, Perry does not take part in any fundraising activities the nonprofit sponsors.

The goal of The Judicial Learning Center, Perry said, is to help people “understand the court system and the constitutional system of government.”

“If people understand the rule of law, we think they will be better citizens” and realize that “judges aren’t just doing what they want to do,” she said.

Perry said she hopes more school groups will visit the learning center. During the summer, the court opened its doors to groups of teachers to explore what the courts have to offer. The last of three so-called “teacher days” will take place on July 31, Jim Woodward, clerk of the court, said.

“We are getting a good response from teachers about the educational opportunities that we’re developing for high school and middle school kids,” Woodward said.

Perry said she’s happy Jackson, the immediate past chief, will continue to lead the re-entry court.

“At the current time, the re-entry court focuses on ex-offenders with serious substance abuse problems who want to beat their addictions and are willing to do a lot of extra work to do that,” Perry said. The court is looking into developing a gang court, but that is still in the discussion phase, she said.

Perry exudes excitement when she talks about the work of the district’s U.S. Probation Office, headed by Doug Burris. The office works with ex-offenders to help them find jobs, manage their money and buy homes. The office also adopted an initiative to help family members deal with issues involved when a loved one enters prison or comes home from prison.

“All these things help prevent recidivism,” Perry said.

“We send so many people to jail … but the vast majority of these people are coming back to our communities, and it is essential that we do everything we can to ensure that these people don’t go back to committing crimes and become productive members of society,” she says.

Perry thinks of it as improving society one person at a time. She said she will do whatever she can to support this outreach effort as well.

The learning center and the ex-offender programs have the same goal: that children who visit and children of ex-offenders never return to the court as defendants, Perry said.

Perry identifies two main challenges for federal judges. The criminal caseload continues to increase, she said, adding that the court has no control over that.

The second challenge is the fact that ever-changing technology will continue to create new issues for judges to handle. Courts will be dealing with substantive, procedural and evidentiary issues in the future, she said.

The judge pointed out some questions that are already arising: What’s the proper venue for a lawsuit stemming from of something that happened on the Internet? How does one prove who did something over the computer?

There is also the problem of jurors using the Internet to research their cases or using social networking sites to talk about their cases. Perry said she now asks jurors whether they’re “so addicted to the Internet” that they “can’t follow my instructions to not Google anybody in this case or talk about it.”

Perry supports having cameras in the courtroom but says current policy prevents any federal court from doing so. “Some members of the U.S. Supreme Court are opposed [to the idea], but things are changing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see cameras in the courtroom in the future,” she said.

The chief judge has a number of administrative duties added to her daily caseload. She has supervisory authority over the judges, the clerk’s office, the Probation Office and U.S. Pretrial Services. Pretrial Services is similar to the Probation Office, but its employees deal with defendants before they’ve been tried.

Woodward, Burris and Chief Pretrial Services Officer Cindy Bochantin all report to the chief judge, and she works with each of them on any projects they want to develop in this district.

The chief judge also has some budgetary responsibilities, and Perry will work with the three court unit executives on the budget for the District Court.

“I do get the impression she’s open to ideas from any source in the court,” Woodward said. “Whether it’s from another judge or an idea I might have, or one of the other court unit executives, I get the idea she’s interested in listening.

“That’s an exciting opportunity for somebody in my position,” he said.

Perry says she’s still training for her new assignment, which began last month. The court has gone through some significant changes in the last 10 years, including moving into the Eagleton courthouse in downtown St. Louis and building the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, as well as converting to electronic filing.

The chief said she’s fortunate there’s no such large project looming on the horizon, so the court can “focus on serving our clients and litigants.”

“Right now,” she said, “my plans are … to do everything the way Judge Jackson did it.”