The first time someone suggested to Ann K. Covington that she apply for an opening on the Missouri Court of Appeals, her reaction was swift.
“I thought, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in all of my life,” she says. “In all of my life.”
Her reasons were imminently practical. She was less than 10 years out of the University of Missouri School of Law. She was a lawyer in Columbia, without the contacts and name recognition of lawyers in the major urban areas.
Still, the idea took root. In 1987, she sought an opening on the Kansas City-based Western District. She had little hope that she would make the three-person panel of finalists, but she did. And she had less hope that Gov. John Ashcroft would select her. But he did.
It was only later, after the headlines began to trumpet it, that it sunk in for Covington that she was the first woman to sit on an appellate court in Missouri.
A mere 14 months after that, she was selected for a vacancy on the Missouri Supreme Court, and she became the first woman to sit on that court as well.
In the wake of Covington’s appointment, 13 more women have been appointed to Missouri’s appellate courts. Three of them since have gone onto the Supreme Court, where they currently comprise almost half the court.
Vivian Eveloff, executive director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, says Covington’s appointment permanently shattered what had been the judiciary’s “thick glass ceiling.”
“The idea that one [woman] is enough, or even two is enough, didn’t take root in Missouri,” Eveloff says.
Yet Covington is a reluctant trailblazer, a shaper of state history who feels as if history simply swept her along. By 1987, she says, it was “well past time” for a woman to sit on the appellate court, and she knew her appointment was a mixture of merit and symbolism.
“For every Ann Covington, there are a thousand other lawyers in the state of Missouri who could have been serving and served with complete distinction, and many of them with much more experience than I,” she says. “I never lost sight of that. I expect that I was a beneficiary of right place, right time, wearing a skirt to work.”
Covington’s self-effacement is as integral to her identity as her gender. Her legal career began by “default,” she says, after deciding not to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature. Her early days as a lawyer were wracked with self-doubt; sometimes, she says, she would paw through files in the middle of the night, terrified she’d done something wrong. It probably made her a better lawyer, but it wasn’t healthy.
“Though it is now many, many, many years later, I have found the practice of law seductive in that I can’t leave it – I don’t leave it behind in my head,” she says. “One would think that after all this time I could have developed a capacity to go home and start thinking about something else, but I have not.”
Yet her humility also has been inspirational to those who have followed her. Judge Cynthia L. Martin was appointed last year to the Western District – coincidentally, to the exact seat Covington once occupied. Martin says her predecessor was the “quintessential personification of how you can approach a hard-charging, stressful business with grace and poise and femininity and still be immensely successful at it.”
“You don’t have to be bold and bucking the system to get things accomplished in our business,” Martin says. “You can just quietly go about doing your job and doing it well, and eventually it seems that you rise to where you’re meant to be.”
In some ways, Covington’s doubts shaped her judicial philosophy. Death penalty cases, she says, were “more than a human being sitting on a bench in a black robe ought to have to deal with.”
“I still don’t know the answer to my internal question, but my leanings are that this is not a good thing,” she says. “Because I do have to say that I always thought, and I do still, that redemption should always be available.”
Covington entered the court at a strange time, when “many members of the court were unable to get along with each other.” For instance, a few years earlier, one judge, Warren Welliver, had been passed over as chief justice.
It was a difficult environment to enter.
“Nobody ever treated me to my face any way other than graciously,” she says. “But as with the Court of Appeals, where there were 10 men and Ann, it had to have been an upheaval for everyone.”
Over time, the strife subsided. In fact, Covington was famously one of the seven Supreme Court judges Ashcroft appointed between 1985 and 1992. It’s the only time in Missouri history that all seven of the court’s judges were named by one governor.
Covington served as the court’s chief justice from 1993 to 1995. But she detested the spotlight and had no desire to rotate into the job again.
“I had not been a political creature, and I still think I’m not,” she says. “That aspect of being on the Supreme Court of Missouri, the administrative aspect, is every bit a burdensome responsibility as the decision-making.”
Covington left the Supreme Court in early 2001. She was 58 years old.
“I had no idea as a female what my shelf life might be,” she says.
She left the court without definite plans but was almost immediately offered a job at Bryan Cave, the state’s largest law firm. She first worked in the firm’s St. Louis office and then at its Jefferson City location. She never moved from Columbia, however, where she lives today with her husband, Charles McClain.
Covington announced her retirement from Bryan Cave in February. As with her earlier departure from the court, she says, she wanted to leave on her own terms, and not hang on too long. After 33 years in the law, she still hopes to learn how to leave it at the office.
“I’ve looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Ann, how much longer are you going to let yourself be seduced?'” she says.