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Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Richard Teitelman.


Missouri Supreme Court

Often, when a public official drops you a line, he has an angle. A favor to ask, a bone to pick, a story to tell, a suggestion to plant.

So for vast sectors of the legal, political and journalistic community in Missouri, it took some time to understand that when you got a call from Judge Richard B. Teitelman of the Supreme Court of Missouri, his praise for whatever it is that you did was unadorned and genuine, a prelude to nothing more than continued good fellowship.

And when he wandered out to greet the courtroom before arguments, he clearly had no hidden agenda. As the first ever legally blind judge of the Supreme Court, he would approach you with his hand extended, and it wasn’t until he’d closed to within a few feet that your face would come into focus and he’d cry “Oh, hi!” He seemed to have no idea, nor any particular concern, if he was approaching an old friend or a complete stranger. No matter how many times you had met Judge Teitelman, you were always and forever a delightful surprise to him.

We at Missouri Lawyers Weekly had already settled on Teitelman as our Lawyer of the Year when, on Nov. 29, we along with the rest of the state learned of his death. Sadly, we never got a chance to tell him in person. But there was no question that his death, less than a year ahead of his forced retirement from the bench he loved, did not in any way diminish the reasons to give him the award.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy is not his important jurisprudence, of which there are many examples, or his ideological place on the court, which favored the poor, the downtrodden, the little guy. It was his unique personality, which disarmed potential enemies and friends alike. In a way, Judge Teitelman made a judicial philosophy out of kindness.

He, of course, would probably prefer the term “justice,” perhaps his favorite word. When he was formally sworn in to the Supreme Court in 2002, Teitelman paraphrased Helen Keller in telling the crowd, “For a committed life, one has to have fidelity to a noble purpose, and for me, that purpose has been the fight for justice.”

“Fight,” however, was a relative term. By nature and training, most judges aren’t terribly confrontational, especially in public settings. But Teitelman seemed particularly averse to waging arguments in public. His questions on the bench were rarely sharp or critical. When he served as chief justice from 2011 to 2013, his major speeches tended to be paeans to the work of the justice system rather than pleas for or promises of some kind of policy change.

“A wise man once said the worst kind of death is being talked to death,” Teitelman joked in his 2012 state of the judiciary address, which the chief justice gives annually to the Missouri General Assembly. (That short speech was perhaps most memorable for the knishes he made sure were served at the post-speech lunch. The traditional Jewish dish was a nod to his status as the first and only Jewish judge on the Supreme Court, as well as to his well-known love of food.)

Sometimes on the bench, Teitelman would launch into meandering discussions of precedents that weren’t cited in the briefs and other topics that seemed only tangentially related to the case at hand. Michael Wolff, the retired dean of Saint Louis University School of Law and a former colleague of Teitelman’s on the Supreme Court, said those seemingly off-topic discussions — say, the details of a truth-in-lending case he’d once handled during his long career as a Legal Services lawyer — also cropped up in conference when the judges voted on cases. They served a purpose, Wolff said, almost like a filibuster.

“What it really was about was giving everybody a chance to pause and think again about what we were really talking about,” Wolff said. “I thought it was very strategic, just in terms of how a group dynamic works. If people are getting focused on their disagreement, he’d say, ‘Hey, I’m going to talk about something else for a while.’”

Edward “Chip” Robertson Jr., a former Supreme Court judge, never served alongside Teitelman and freely admits that they likely wouldn’t have voted the same very often. Yet they had a friendship that went back to a dinner they shared years ago where Robertson nicknamed Teitelman the “Lumbering Gourmet.”

“He was the most gregarious of the probably 30 Supreme Court judges that I’ve personally known, and for that reason he was good for the court,” Robertson said. He said Teitelman espoused a “gentility” that has become rare these days. “I hope it’s not gone, but one of its great symbols is gone,” he added.

Yet Teitelman was hardly a go-along, get-along judge afraid to make waves. He authored numerous cases in which the court split over weighty topics, ranging from the death penalty to legislative limits on jury verdicts. He was also its most prolific dissenter and the judge least likely to be in the majority.

During Teitelman’s tenure, about 24 percent of the court’s rulings resulted in a split vote, but that number might have been quite different without him. He was the author of a quarter of the 290 dissents issued between April 2002 and November 2016. Other judges, who perhaps would have seen the case differently in the absence of Teitelman’s point of view, joined him in most of those. But in 32 of those cases — amounting to more than one in 10 of all dissents published in that time — Teitelman acted alone. (In a handful of other cases, he wrote separately from both the majority and other judges who wrote their own dissents.)

Teitelman’s decisions, whether unanimous or dissenting, tended to be short; his opinions averaged just eight and a half pages. (The court’s long-term average is about 11 pages.) Wolff said that was no accident. Teitelman loved lawyers, but his real interest was in the people they represented.

“He wanted to make the law understandable,” he said. “Some long discussion that would be worthy of a law review article, he wasn’t be interested in it, and he didn’t think the lawyers wouldn’t be interested in it, and he knew damn well that the clients wouldn’t be interested in it.”

Above all, Teitelman was a people person, even with people who don’t regard themselves as people persons. In 2012, Teitelman, then the chief justice, played a key role in persuading Bill Thompson to switch from his longtime position as general counsel and instead be the court’s clerk. Thompson — who was replacing the legendary Tom Simon, who’d held the clerk’s job for nearly 40 years — resisted. But Teitelman insisted that Thompson, who’d been there nearly as long as Simon had and knew most of the court’s inner workings, was just what the court needed.

“It’s an example of his openness, his generosity,” said Thompson, who recently retired.

Thompson had a habit of singing the old Kellogg’s cereal jingle — “Good morning, good morning, the best to you each morning …” — to Teitelman as a way to start the day. Teitelman, he said, was delighted.

“He’s just a wonderful example for me,” Thompson said. “I’m not the most gregarious person. I would be encouraged that you can go out and meet people, and they would be nice people. You just have to engage with them the right way.”