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Woman of the Year: Patricia Breckenridge

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge doesn’t relish public speaking. But in January, just a week after Missouri’s new governor delivered a blistering portrait of “nasty” lawyers working in a “broken” judicial system, she stood before the legislature to deliver a response.

The annual state of the judiciary speech — the date for which was set two weeks before the chief justice knew what the governor would say — usually doesn’t have much to offer on pending legislation. Yet Breckenridge squarely acknowledged lawmakers’ ongoing overhaul of the state’s tort laws, and while she made no effort to tell lawmakers what to do, she also made no bones about what they should avoid. 032917-breckenridge_4616

“Do not view these calls for action as a condemnation of our judicial system,” she urged.

Breckenridge, Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s Woman of the Year, is perhaps an ideally suited candidate to deliver such a message. She’s a former elected Republican judge from a rural county — a background that 10 years ago led a different Republican governor to appoint her to the Supreme Court in the first place.

Breckenridge frequently acknowledges her roots, but she also transcends them. In her speech to lawmakers in January, she noted that three successive Republican governors named her to the benches on which she’s served. Yet she’s prouder of the line that followed: “It has been my privilege to serve with judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors and to work to decide cases according to the law.”

Throughout her two-year term as chief justice, Breckenridge has stressed that the challenges the court faces are institutional, not ideological. The upheaval in Ferguson in 2014 brought to light issues of racial injustice and procedural unfairness that has required a forceful response from the state’s highest court. Meanwhile, the court recently brought on its first truly new clerk in 45 years and suffered the loss of one of the most distinctive members of its bench.

Breckenridge’s consistent message is that, whatever its flaws, the court system to which she has devoted her career is an institution worth defending.

“In addition to feeling the responsibility to acknowledge challenges and what we’re going to do about it, we have the responsibility to give accurate information about the good parts of the system,” Breckenridge said in a recent interview. “I really felt proud that I could be the person who could speak for the judiciary.”

Small-town roots

Despite having spent a career in public service culminating in the highest judicial office in the state, Breckenridge can be reticent and self-deprecating. In a questionnaire for the Women’s Justice Award, for instance, she described her lifelong love of music despite, she said, not having any talent for it.

“I took singing lessons just to get the nerve to sing karaoke,” Breckenridge wrote. “My voice teacher tried to encourage me by telling me that I had the potential to sing in a church choir. I wondered if I should be offended because where I come from church choirs aren’t too discerning.”

Breckenridge’s judicial career began in 1982, when Gov. Kit Bond named her to an unexpired term as an associate circuit judge in Vernon County. In 1990, Gov. John Ashcroft appointed her to the Court of Appeals Western District, where she served until Gov. Matt Blunt named her to the Supreme Court in 2007.

Breckenridge’s father, Don Russell, was a lawyer in Nevada, Missouri, and while she doesn’t recall writing it, her mother tells her she wrote a paper in the fourth grade saying she wanted to be a lawyer. That early prediction came true when she earned her law degree in 1978 from the University of Missouri and began to practice in her hometown of Nevada, where she and her husband of 41 years, fellow attorney Bryan Breckenridge, live.032917-breckenridge_4564

Breckenridge said being a 28-year-old female judge in rural southwestern Missouri demonstrated the impact of implicit biases, a subject that has been a major theme of her term as chief justice.

“As a woman, I was worried about people being biased against me,” she said. “I was not worried that I might exhibit biased behavior against others.”

Then she learned that female attorneys often face subtle discrimination by being interrupted in court.

“When I read that, I knew I had done that a week before with a woman attorney who was in my courtroom,” Breckenridge said. “Having experiences like that really taught me how pervasive it is and how important it is that every single one of us have an awareness of it.”

Now 63, Breckenridge still notices such mental hitches in herself — and her colleagues. Not long ago, she said, she chided the author of a draft opinion for describing a 62-year-old person as “elderly.”

Breckenridge’s recognition of implicit bias has shown up in a variety of ways. Last year, she announced that Missouri judges would receive implicit bias training, saying that it is “critical for those of us who sit in judgment of others to be aware of any bias, implicit or otherwise, that might unknowingly affect our decisions.”

It’s also reflected in such efforts at the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness, which Breckenridge helped create in 2015 to study potential improvements to the justice system — particularly in municipal and juvenile courts.

Less formally, Breckenridge made it part of her recent interviews with applicants for the Supreme Court by repeatedly asked a variation of this question: “How should a judge decide cases to limit the influence of implicit biases, which we all have?”

Missouri Bar President Dana Tippin Cutler, who also speaks frequently on addressing implicit bias, has welcomed Breckenridge’s focus.

“As a practicing attorney and a woman of color, it really doesn’t get any better than that, than to have the chief justice of your Supreme Court say, ‘Hey, this is real. We need to make sure it’s not happening,’” Cutler said. While Cutler says Missouri’s courts are already quite fair, that “extra layer” of emphasis helps ensure that they remain so.

‘Faith in the system’

Twenty-eight years after Judge Ann Covington became the first of just four woman to join the Missouri Supreme Court so far, Breckenridge’s position is a sign of how firmly women are now a part of the court. She joined the court in 2007 following a judicial selection process headed by then-Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith, and in 2015 she succeeded Judge Mary R. Russell as chief justice. As such, Breckenridge holds two notable second-generation “firsts”: the first woman on the Supreme Court to have been selected in part by a female chief justice, and the first woman to follow another woman in holding the top court’s top administrative job. (With Breckenridge’s selection this year, all four women to have served on the Supreme Court have now been named Woman of the Year.)

In an interview, Stith noted that her role in bringing Breckenridge onto the court was as one of seven votes on the Appellate Judicial Commission, and that the governor ultimately decided which of the three finalists to appoint. Still, she said, it’s a sign that women on the high court, and on courts in general, are becoming a normal thing. “You’re not the one woman, and you can check that off,” she said.

Stith, who has known Breckenridge since both of them served on the Western District, praised her colleague and friend’s career in the decade since she joined the court.

“What’s exciting is to see the way she’s handled that job,” Stith said. “That doesn’t surprise me at all. It comes from her passion for seeing that the court works right.”

Breckenridge’s term as chief justice, which ends June 30, has been marked by far more change than is usually seen on a court where judges serve for years and staff often for decades. This year she welcomed Betsy AuBuchon, the first woman to serve as the court’s clerk. The previous clerk, Bill Thompson, had been in the role since 2012 but had been counsel for the court since 1978 and had replaced 40-year veteran clerk Tom Simon.032917-breckenridge_4622

Judge Richard B. Teitelman’s passing last November marked the first time a Missouri Supreme Court judge has died in office in more than 20 years. That not only touched off last month’s interviews to fill the resulting vacancy but also left Breckenridge to manage the court’s work with one less judge while the court was still grieving.

As of this writing, it’s not clear if Breckenridge will get to play a role in adding another woman to the court. Of the 31 people who applied for the vacancy, just two were women. One of them, Court of Appeals Judge Lisa White Hardwick (a previous Women’s Justice Award winner) was named as one of the three finalists. Gov. Eric Greitens has until the end of April to make his selection.

This year’s panel of finalists has already been criticized in some quarters for having just one applicant with a Republican background. Breckenridge is quite familiar with this kind of charge: In 2007, she was the only finalist with Republican credentials, causing Gov. Blunt to tepidly endorse her as “the best candidate of the three candidates submitted to me.”

Breckenridge says Blunt’s public criticism of the Nonpartisan Court Plan was in contrast to the politeness and interest he showed the candidates during interviews. Of course, Breckenridge acknowledges that a judge’s background is important. But for her, that shows up more in the excellence of a candidate’s work and their life experiences than the labels one can assign.

“One has to have faith in the system getting persons of integrity, who respect the law, who believe the law is important and who are going to follow the rules in making their decisions,” she said. Those things say a lot about how a judge will act on the bench, “much more so than one can predict how a judge’s decisions will be according to who appointed them.”