Colleagues and friends remember retired St. Louis Circuit Court judge Michael Calvin as respectful and empathetic — even with the thief who stole his car.
Calvin died Nov. 29 from complications from surgery. He was 63.
Calvin was a judge for nearly 30 years, retiring in 2008. His former judicial colleague, Booker Shaw, recalled sitting outside a Central West End wine bar with Calvin when a car that looked like Calvin’s Monte Carlo went by.
It turned out the car was, in fact, Calvin’s: Someone was stealing it. The car ended up totaled, and the thief, on probation for a separate minor offense, was scheduled to appear in the courtroom of Shaw, who served as a judge with Calvin in the circuit court starting in 1983.
Shaw asked Calvin what they should do.
Calvin pointed out that no one was hurt and that he had insurance, said Shaw, a Thompson Coburn partner and former appeals court judge.
Calvin suggested the thief help pay the premium.
“Typical of Michael, he said we should probably give him another chance,” Shaw said.
Calvin was a strong supporter of the centralized docketing system. In 2007, he successfully persuaded his fellow judges to abandon a yearlong effort at individual docketing, where the same judge handles a case from start to finish. A divided court agreed to return to using one controlling division to hear motions and then assign cases to other judges when they were ready for trial.
Calvin that year oversaw a jury trial against the maker of safety equipment a St. Louis firefighter was wearing when he died. The case resulted in a $27 million verdict.
After Calvin left the bench, he was of counsel with Spencer Fane Britt & Browne, where he had a focus on mediation and arbitration. He also was a member of the 22nd Circuit Judicial Commission, which selects nominees to send to the governor for city court bench vacancies.
Gov. Jay Nixon nominated Calvin in 2010 for a spot on the board that at the time oversaw the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. But Calvin withdrew his nomination after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Calvin in the past had tax problems.
Calvin had a “flourishing” mediation practice with United States Arbitration & Mediation and was a mentor to other lawyers at Spencer Fane, said Frank Neuner, St. Louis managing partner.
“He appreciated legal cases weren’t just about arguments and issues, they were about people,” Neuner said.
“He appreciated legal cases weren’t just about arguments and issues, they were about people.” – Frank Neuner
Calvin was born Feb. 16, 1951, in Nashville, Tennessee, but his family moved to St. Louis when he was 2, according to an article on St. Louis Public Radio’s website written by Gloria Ross, the head of an obituary-writing and design service. He grew up on the city’s north side, graduating from Beaumont High School in 1968. He earned a bachelor of arts in history and government in 1972 from Monmouth College in Illinois and a law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1975.
Calvin spent three years in private practice before joining the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1979. He was one of the youngest judges elected in St. Louis, according to a biography on Spencer Fane’s website. He rose to circuit judge in 1988.
Calvin led the court as presiding judge from 1999 to 2000.
His friends on the court were “kind of at a loss” when Calvin announced his retirement, said St. Louis Circuit Judge Mark Neill.
“He fought hard in court en banc meetings for what he believed in,” Neill said. “We missed his passion for justice.”
Calvin also had a sense of humor: until he retired as a judge, Calvin would regularly appear in “Elevator” video skits set in the court that played at the annual Lawyers Association of St. Louis spoof show, Neill said.
The 2008 video depicted the co-assistant directors of the show, Peter Dunne and Tom Germeroth, teaching the newly retired judge the proper way to suck up to the judiciary. Calvin at first doesn’t understand that he now needs to be deferential to his old colleagues, but the video ended with him kissing Judge John Riley’s ring.
Gary Sarachan, a partner with Capes, Sokol, Goodman & Sarachan, said Calvin treated everyone with respect and conducted court sessions with humor paired with dignity.
“His personality seemed to defuse a lot of the acrimony that the lawyers and litigants would bring to the courtroom,” Sarachan said.
Calvin had many chances to defuse tense situations early in his judicial career. He oversaw tenant and landlord disputes in a courtroom that at the time was furnished with folding chairs instead of benches, said Shaw, who first got to know Calvin in 1978.
At one hearing, a tenant got angry with a landlord and tried to hit the landlord in the head with a chair, Shaw said. Calvin had a sheriff pull the two apart, put them in a holding cell during lunch, and come back later to apologize.
“It was crazy like that sometimes,” Shaw said. “He could handle people like that very well. He could control his courtroom.”
Calvin spoke optimistically about the ultimate outcome of events in Ferguson in an interview with a Missouri Lawyers Weekly reporter Nov. 25 for a story about the grand jury in the Michael Brown police shooting case.
Darren Wilson, a white officer then with the Ferguson Police Department, on Aug. 9 shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Brown, triggering months of protests. The Nov. 24 announcement that a grand jury would not indict Wilson rekindled unrest that night that included looting and arson.
“Tragedies leave opportunities,” Calvin said. “It is possible that this tragedy might lead to the unique opportunity to bridge certain gaps with regards to race and class.”
Calvin is survived by his wife, Vanessa; sons Michael Calvin Jr. and Justin; stepdaughter Patrice Willis; brother Lincoln Calvin, and sister Robin Rutlin.
Visitation and a funeral service were set for Dec. 6 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 5010 Terry Ave., in north St. Louis. Visitation is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The service is from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Reporter Catherine Martin contributed to this report.