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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Chief Justice Teitelman wins over critics with work ethic, brains, personality

Donna Walter and Scott Lauck//November 29, 2016

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Chief Justice Teitelman wins over critics with work ethic, brains, personality

Donna Walter and Scott Lauck//November 29, 2016

Widely regarded as an incurable liberal, a frequent dissenter, the only appellate judge in recent memory to face a serious retention challenge, Richard B. Teitelman is the Missouri Supreme Court’s most controversial judge — on paper.

In person, he is perhaps the court’s most beloved member. An unerring presence at parties, an inveterate glad-hander, he’s the judge who wanders through the courtroom before a hearing to say hello, then compliments the lawyers after their arguments.

Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Richard Teitelman.

That charm has proved to be a powerful weapon.

“Frankly, there are a lot of people who may not be Teitelman fans, but they’re not enemies, and that’s a big distinction,” said Chip Robertson, a former Supreme Court judge. “Rick doesn’t have any enemies that I know of. Even the people who think he’s on the wrong end of things like him personally, and that means a lot.”

In July, Teitelman, 63, began a two-year term as chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, a position that makes him both the face of the court system and the chairman of the committee that selects finalists for judicial openings. Last week, in his first major public duty as chief justice, he led two days of interviews with candidates for the first Supreme Court opening to be filled under the new system.

‘Work 24 hours a day’

“I wasn’t going to make it.”

That, Teitelman says, was the prognosis given him growing up legally blind in a poor neighborhood in west Philadelphia. Not much was expected of him. Not to go to college, not to attend law school, not to lead a Legal Services organization, not to become a judge.

When he was 12, a prominent eye doctor predicted Teitelman would not go to college. At 13, he began to focus all of his energy on studying.

“I was told point blank by my mother: ‘If you don’t work 24 hours a day, study 24 hours a day, do all-nighters every night, you will not survive. There is no one in our family that can afford to support you, and you have to support yourself.’”

Teitelman, who is single, followed his mother’s advice and didn’t let a social life distract him from his studies.

His proficiency in math was noteworthy in the Space Race-fueled 1960s, and he attended a Philadelphia magnet high school that emphasized math and science. While still a high school student, Teitelman took college math courses every afternoon and had completed all of his undergraduate math courses before he even started college. He considered medical school, but those plans came to an end when he almost blew up the chemistry lab.

So he made his way to St. Louis to attend Washington University School of Law. Teitelman used a tape recorder to help him memorize the lectures, and he avoided classes that required an inordinate amount of reading.

“When I went to law school, the Socratic method was learning critical thinking, how to understand the issues in a particular course segment. That’s almost like math,” he said. He graduated in 1973.

But the first time he took the bar exam, he failed. The print was so small he couldn’t read it. And the Missouri Board of Law Examiners hadn’t allowed him to bring a reader to the exam.

With the help of Tom Simon, who retired this year as clerk of the Missouri Supreme Court, Teitelman took the bar exam a second time — with someone reading him the questions — and passed.

“My law school really went to bat for me,” he said. “I think every law professor I had signed an affidavit saying it would be fair for me to have a reader. I didn’t even know it. I just figured I wasn’t going to become a lawyer. But I wasn’t going to be a doctor, either. So I didn’t know what [I was going to do].”

He passed the bar, but he couldn’t find a job. So he hung his shingle outside his one-room apartment and volunteered as a lawyer for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and 200 United Farm Workers charged with picketing at supermarkets selling lettuce, grapes and wines.

His volunteer work led to some paying work, but it wasn’t much, so he tried to get a job at Goodwill Industries as a broom-maker. He was overqualified.

“I have to say I would have been a terrible broom-maker,” the judge said during an interview in his modest office in the Civil Courts Building in downtown St. Louis. “I was not very mechanical.”

On the an unusually comfortable August day, the judge was in his office and on the telephone before 9 a.m. Teitelman is well-known in the legal community for making phone calls earlier than even 8 a.m.

The artwork above his credenza depicts the reading of a will — with one party, as the judge points out, happy about the results and the other not. Another piece of art celebrates the famous Shelley v. Kraemer decision, which outlawed the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in home sales.

Piles of papers all over the place and a marked-up white board illustrates that Teitelman’s office is a real working office, and not a showplace full of fancy furniture befitting a man of his stature.

After law school, and after a year and half of struggling to make ends meet on his own, Teitelman enjoyed “a huge income increase” when then-director David Lander hired him as a staff attorney at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

Lander, who ran the office from 1975 to 1980, said Teitelman’s hiring initially gave some on staff pause. Apart from his disabilities, Teitelman was still learning to dress like a lawyer and sometimes appeared a little rough.

“It’s fair to say that there were people who thought that there were others we should have hired instead of him,” Lander said. “There’s no question about that. There were people that were ready to second-guess us.”

Those fears melted in the face of Teitelman’s formidable work ethic. After a year as a staff attorney, Teitelman, a self-described “workaholic for justice,” became the managing attorney for LSEM’s consumer unit, then he succeeded Lander as LSEM’s executive director in 1980.

Teitelman thanks Lander for starting his career. Lander says his role was just to get out of the way.

“He gives me that credit, but truthfully he opened his own doors with that combination of skills, and once in the door there was no stopping him,” Lander said. Nonetheless, Lander said he never predicted at the time that Teitelman would one day lead the Supreme Court.

“I knew he was smart, but I had no clue that he was ambitious for or could attain the heights he’s attained,” he said.

‘The case against Teitelman’

Teitelman eschews labels.

“Liberals, non-liberals, conservative, non-conservative — it’s in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “All I try to do is apply the constitutional law to the facts in the cases.”

That, it’s safe to say, was not the prevailing view among Teitelman’s critics in 2004, when he became a cause célèbre of sorts for conservative groups pushing to get the judge voted off the state Supreme Court in his first retention election.

A website that appeared just days before the election made “the case against Teitelman,” pointing to several “liberal” decisions Teitelman wrote or participated in. The campaign also noted that Teitelmen’s 2002 appointment by Gov. Bob Holden meant the court had four appointees by a Democratic governor for the first time in years.

The committee behind the website, Missourians Against Liberal Judges, spent about $84,000 on the anti-Teitelman campaign. Major conservative groups such as Missouri Family Network and the Eagle Forum backed the effort. Nonetheless, it failed: Out of nearly 2.2 million votes across the state, about 62 percent were in favor of retaining him.

Some court defenders say the 2004 retention fight had little to do with Teitelman personally. Bob Thompson, the current president of the Missouri Institute for Justice, a group that formed in the wake of the election to defend nonpartisan judges, said Teitelman was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“They were looking for an opportunity to make a point,” said Thompson, who is also managing partner of Bryan Cave’s Kansas City office.

According to state campaign finance records, about 80 percent of the funding for Missourians Against Liberal Judges came from two legislative district committees based in Farmington. Media reports at the time linked the money to Rep. Rod Jetton, a Republican who was then the incoming House speaker. But in an interview last week, Jetton denied funding the campaign.

It’s not clear where the money ultimately came from. The committees’ treasurer at the time, Tom Burcham, a lawyer in Farmington, said he “vaguely recalled” the transactions but didn’t know who authorized them.

Interestingly, the committees through which the anti-Teitelman donations were made are connected to the districts of current two high-ranking members of the Legislature — House Speaker Steve Tilley and Sen. Kevin Engler, who was previously the majority floor leader. Both Republicans were elected to their current offices in 2004.

District committees, which have since been abolished, aren’t controlled by the candidates, so their use in the 2004 campaign doesn’t necessarily indicate that Tilley and Engler share those views. Tilley did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview, Engler said he didn’t know about the anti-Teitelman donations until after the fact. He added that he doesn’t have a problem with the judge.

“Do I think he’s got integrity and honesty? Yeah,” Engler said. “Is he too liberal for me? Yeah. But there’s a bunch of justices that fall in that category.”

Tort changes

As for Jetton, his public opposition to Teitelman’s retention in 2004 had softened just three years later, when he invited the judge to testify in favor of a bill to require all young schoolchildren in Missouri to get eye exams. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Jetton called Teitelman a “genius.” (The bill became law later that year.)

“Over time I got to know him more and more,” Jetton said last week. “And while he and I probably don’t agree on every issue and would make different rulings on certain decisions, he’s just a wonderful, caring man who I came to admire quite greatly.”

Jetton said his early opposition to Teitelman was partially because of the court’s 2002 opinion in Scott v SSM Healthcare, which overturned a tort reform measure passed in the 1980s. Jetton later helped to pass an even more sweeping series of changes to tort law. But last week, Jetton said that, while he still defends those changes, he now thinks the 2005 tort law may have gone too far. He said caps on medical malpractice damages have prevented some valid cases from going forward.

“We might have swung it a little further than we needed to when we passed tort reform,” Jetton said. “Which makes me feel that Judge Teitelman maybe knew a little bit more about the law than I did.”


When asked about challenges ahead for the state’s judiciary, Teitelman mentioned funding and then complimented his predecessor, Judge William Ray Price Jr., and the state judges who found ways to save the state millions of dollars in each of the last several fiscal years.

“We have a very responsible branch who did a very good job of managing the financial drop-off,” he said.

The judge also anticipates special interest groups or the state Legislature will attempt to get on the ballot a constitutional amendment to change or throw out the Nonpartisan Court Plan, Missouri’s system of selecting Supreme Court judges, appellate court judges and judges in certain circuits.

Teitelman is careful not to advocate for the nonpartisan system because, he said, it could come up as an election issue. If it does, “we have to be impartial,” he said.

He went on to list the changes to Missouri’s judicial selection system, starting in 1820 when the new state used the federal system of choosing judges, through 1850 when the law changed to provide for judicial elections and then 1940 when the Nonpartisan Court Plan was adopted.

“I don’t know if it’s the best system, but frankly it’s worked very well in the last 70 years,” he said. “I’ve seen the judges. I’ve been in the court system as a practicing attorney and as a judge for the last 38 years. We have a great bar but also a great bench.”

‘Access to justice agenda’

During his or her two-year term, the chief justice serves as, to some extent, a lobbyist for the court. In particular, the chief helps to craft the court’s budget. Although court staff does much of the actual budget work, the court’s Legislature-savvy clerk, Simon, retired earlier this year after nearly 40 years on the job.

Robertson, who served as chief justice from 1991 to 1993, said that leaves a large hole in the court’s institutional knowledge.

“All the chief justice did was put the cherry on top of the sundae,” he said. “Simon had put the ice cream and all the sauce on it, and all you had to do was go over there and not foul it up.”

But as Robertson noted, Teitelman has had experience with the Legislature. Both during his time at Legal Services and when he was on the appellate bench, he has worked with state and federal lawmakers on access to justice issues.

For instance, although he was by that time an appellate judge, Teitelman garnered support for a 2001 law that set aside a percentage of the money in the Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund to benefit the legal aid programs.

The Legislature passed the bill after a three-year effort, setting aside 26 percent of all money coming into the tort victims fund to be used for civil legal services for the poor.

“Legal Aid could not succeed if it was perceived as a liberal organization and [if] it was not a constitutional organization to give people the right to access [the courts],” Teitelman said.

David Klarich, an attorney with Riezman Berger, was then a Republican state senator who championed the bill. Klarich said Teitelman’s passion for the issue helped build the consensus to enact the law, despite some lawmaker’s skepticism of legal aid organizations.

“We wanted to provide the assurance that the funds that would be used would be used for legitimate legal services and not for social policy,” he said. “I don’t think [Teitelman] ever attempted to pursue an ideological agenda. It was simply an access to justice agenda.”

Fourteen years after he left Legal Services for the appellate bench, Teitelman remains an advocate of civil legal services for the poor, and he plans to use the bully pulpit of his new office to heighten awareness of the problems the poor face.

When he talks about helping people in need — be they residents of tornado-ravaged Joplin or abuse victims in need of orders of protection and safe places to live — it’s as if he never left the legal aid field.

He rattles off statistics about the number of people living in poverty — 15 percent of all Missourians and 31 percent of Missouri children — as well as statistics about unemployment, domestic violence and the number of people the state’s four legal aid programs are forced to turn away.

“The judicial branch by its name indicates justice,” he said. “So if anyone’s going to talk about justice, heightening the awareness of justice, it’s the third branch, the members of the judiciary.”

It’s an agenda that befits a judge who warded off his own poverty with a mix of hard work and well-timed helping hands. It also makes sense for the first Jewish person to sit on the Missouri Supreme Court.

James Stone Goodman, a rabbi in St. Louis who has known Teitelman for years, attributes the judge’s intense interest in access to justice to his Jewish background. Goodman performed a lengthy poem about Teitelman when the St. Louis chapter of Jews United for Justice presented Teitelman with its Heschel/King Award in May. (The other recipient was former Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, a close friend of Teitelman’s on the court.)

In preparation for the event, Goodman interviewed Teitelman at length and was struck by Teitelman’s love of a passage in the book of Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.”

“That’s kind of the guideline for us, that true justice is beyond the common effort,” Goodman said. “It’s an extra effort, it’s the higher road. And so the word is reiterated, it’s mentioned twice: ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue it.’”

This story was originally posted Sept. 6, 2011.

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