Though Thompson became the Supreme Court’s top administrator just in 2012, he had been with the high court since June 1978, first as a staff attorney and, since 1997, as its general counsel. In all, he’s served 28 Supreme Court judges.
Throw in the fact that the clerk Thompson succeeded, Tom Simon, had served in the job for nearly 40 years, and it’s clear that a vast trove of institutional knowledge walked out the door on Thompson’s last day.
Since announcing his retirement in May, Thompson has been trying to pass on that knowledge to his successor, Betsy AuBuchon, previously the court’s director of government relations and deputy counsel. It’s a big task, though, for someone who has played a role in nearly everything the court has done in the last four decades and who has known every member of the court since long before they joined the bench.
“There is no substitute for experience, unfortunately,” Thompson said. “I just have a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and I can’t just give those pieces to other people. I’d love to, but it’s very hard.”
On the other hand, he said, the change will allow for new perspectives.
“Sometimes it frees you up to reconfigure the pieces in a way that’s better suited to where we are now,” he said. “You always have the danger of being a dead weight on changes that should be taken. I’ve always tried to be open to changes, but we’re all human and we all have our levels of comfort on different things.”
That ability to see things from multiple angles with the benefit of historical experience was critical to Thompson’s role at the court. As one of the handful of people who was privy to opinions before they are made public, he was able to offer informed advice on the issues without having to take an ultimate side, to help the judges craft the best opinions they can without taking them over. He describes it as being “neutral enough.”
He recounted a judge once coming into his office three days in a row to discuss a forthcoming opinion.
“I finally said, ‘Judge I don’t vote,’” Thompson said. ‘He said, ‘Yes, but you complain a lot.’”
Thompson earned his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1975 and, other than three years as a staff lawyer for the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Research, spent nearly his entire legal career with the Supreme Court.
Over the years he entertained thoughts of other careers. He applied for jobs at the U.S. Supreme Court and the University of Missouri, as well as to a judgeship on the Court of Appeals Western District. He’s not disappointed that those forays didn’t succeed. After all, he had the chance to shape two of the top jobs at Missouri’s top court in the way he saw fit.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have found a place that suited me so well, that was happy to have me,” Thompson said. “Not many people get that.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Tom Simon. We regret the error.