There are few in the legal profession who have served in as many roles as U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig.
Any one of those positions might have been enough to earn Fleissig a turn as Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s Woman of the Year. Taken together, they comprise a career dedicated to public service, stitched together with a love of investigating the intricacies of financial fraud. She is, as she puts it, a “public lawyer at heart.”
But Fleissig’s career didn’t begin in an agency or public office. In 1980, fresh out of Washington University School of Law, she joined Peper, Martin, Jensen, Maichel & Hetlage, a predecessor firm to what is now Husch Blackwell. Her reasons were straightforward: she wanted to do securities litigation, and with no government agencies in St. Louis that did that work, Peper Martin’s vigorous securities litigation department was a good fit.
Working for women’s rights
There were just a handful of women at the firm at that time, and Fleissig was the first to join the litigation department.
“When we would show up in court, we were an oddity,” she said.
It was a learning experience not just for her, but also for the firm and for the legal profession as a whole. Accommodations for women who wanted to raise a family were non-existent, a state of affairs Fleissig helped change. When she and her husband, Bruce, had their first child, she lobbied to be able to work part time.
“The law firms just were not addressing the issues that might arise as the result of the legal profession changing to one where you had two working parents,” Fleissig said.
The partnership’s response, Fleissig said, was skeptical.
“I remember one partner looked and me and said, ‘What are you going to do if it’s the day you’re not here and you get a call from a client, and you’re not there to answer the phone?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what do I do now when I’m in a deposition and they call? Someone takes a message, and I call them back. It’s not going to be any different.’”
Eventually she prevailed, taking on fewer cases and accepting less pay in the process. “I knew that if I could just bite the bullet for a little while and let [the firm’s partners] adopt it in a manner that posed very little risk to them that they would come to see it would work,” she said. Her approach worked so well that she made partner while she was pregnant with her second child and working part time. “My confidence in them was not misplaced.”
Headed for public service
Despite her success in the private sector, the lure of public service work was strong. In 1991, Stephen Higgins, then the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, spoke to members of Peper Martin about careers in his office. Few large-firm attorneys are willing to make that leap, but Fleissig told Higgins she was interested.
“I asked her if she could explain to me how her experience in defending or prosecuting civil fraud cases would help her be a prosecutor of criminal fraud cases,” Higgins, now a partner at Thompson Coburn, recalled. “She said, ‘Let me think about it and get you something.’ The next day, I got delivered a 20-page, thoughtful, terrifically well-written summary of the similarities between civil fraud and criminal fraud.”
Floored by the seriousness of her response, Higgins quickly hired her. The job, Fleissig said, “fit her like a glove.”
“I just love fraud cases,” she said. “I love figuring them out and finding all the little details related to them.”
That enthusiasm proved important in one of her highest profile cases: the investigation into brothers Alan and Harold Lieberman, who were prominent homebuilders in St. Louis accused of fraud.
“Case of a lifetime,” Fleissig said.
Just before Fleissig’s team brought an indictment against them in 1992, the Liebermans fled to Chile. Alan Lieberman was eventually returned to the United States for prosecution; Harold Lieberman committed suicide before he could be extradited.
Michael Reap, a longtime prosecutor in the Eastern District who worked closely with Fleissig on the case, praised her attention to detail.
Fraud cases “are so massive, you almost have to take them apart and put them back together again, and once you do that you can figure them out,” he said. “She was very good at that. And dogged — she followed her instincts and didn’t give up.”
Reap said fraud cases often are more civil than criminal, so some prosecutors are content to let lawyers in the private sector duke it out in high-dollar cases. Fleissig didn’t have that reaction.
“She had this attitude of, ‘No, darn it, this is a real crime,’” Reap said.
In 1999, then-U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd Jr. left the office to help investigate the FBI’s role in the 1993 Waco siege. Fleissig won Senate confirmation to the top job, making her the first woman in Missouri appointed as a U.S. Attorney. She took office in January 2000.
“That was just the most tremendous opportunity that kind of fell in my lap,” she said.
The move, however, was not without its career risks. With an appointment at the tail end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Fleissig knew that the coming change in administrations would probably mean finding a new job. As it turned out, the timing was impeccable; in 2001, an opening for a U.S. magistrate judgeship occured, creating a path for Fleissig to remain in the public sector in an exciting new way.
“That was really fortunate for me because there wasn’t another opening for another nine years — and that was my opening when I became a district judge,” she said.
Nonetheless, Fleissig had some qualms about the switch.
“I really liked being an advocate, and I liked being in the courtroom,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I would find being a judge as comfortable of a fit as being an advocate. Luckily for me, it was everything I hoped it would be and more.”
Among the attractions to the job was the unusual amount of responsibility that the Eastern District of Missouri grants its magistrates. Magistrate judges are hired by the court itself, rather than appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, so their powers are more proscribed; they cannot, for instance, preside over felony criminal cases. In many federal courts, magistrates handle only portions of a case, such as mediation and discovery disputes.
The Eastern District, in contrast, puts its magistrates “on the wheel” for civil cases. So long as the parties consent, magistrates there handle civil cases from beginning to end, giving them civil dockets that are nearly indistinguishable from that of the district judges.
“I knew our district was unique in terms of the level of responsibility given to magistrate judges, and that’s part of what made the position so attractive to me,” Fleissig said.
Certainly, it was a fitting level of authority for a judge noted by many of her colleagues for her energy.
“She’s a dynamo,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge David Noce. “She could hold a light bulb in her hand and light it with her energy.”
‘The very best for the public’
In 2010, Fleissig was once again tapped to go through a Senate confirmation to fill the vacancy left when Judge E. Richard Webber took senior status. Despite a long delay, she was confirmed 90-0 in 2010.
“This is my first time to have a role in trying to help select a federal judge, and my biggest concern was that I find a person who would never take that lifetime appointment as anything other than a challenge to do the very best for the public,” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who sponsored Fleissig for the position, said when introducing her to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I am confident we found that person in Audrey Fleissig.”
Among Fleissig’s high-profile rulings was a 2013 decision finding that a Missouri law exempting moral objectors from mandatory birth control coverage conflicts with the Affordable Care Act. Last year, she raised doubts about the constitutionality of a state program for sex offenders who are committed indefinitely to mental health facilities. A trial over the remedy to that conflict could come soon.
Her work has not kept her out of the community, both outside the court and within it. Terry Adelman, who retired as a magistrate judge in 2015, noted Fleissig’s role in building relationships among the judges by holding informal coffees.
“We sometimes teased her as the social director,” Adelman said. “But it’s an important function, I think.”
Fleissig recently retired as an adjunct professor at Washington University, which she had done throughout her legal career. She also is a founding member of Ready Readers, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that helps low-income children develop a love for reading. She remains involved with the group’s advisory board.
“Reading and being able to read was an extremely strong value for her,” said Lisa Greening, the organization’s executive director.
By coincidence, April 14, the date of the Women’s Justice Award ceremony, is Fleissig’s 61st birthday. Had she remained a magistrate judge, Fleissig said, she probably would have retired at 65 and moved onto yet another career — teaching, perhaps, or running a charitable organization. But with a lifetime appointment to the bench before her, and the opportunity to take senior status someday, Fleissig is far from thinking about her next move, if any.
“I have no plans except to walk in tomorrow and do the very best job I can at this job,” she said.