Instead, Thea A. Sherry spent much of her career as an advocate for families and children, from her early days in private practice to stints as a Family Court Judge for the 21st Circuit in St. Louis County. In April, she ended a three-year assignment as Administrative Judge of Family Court, where she’s known for unswerving determination to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children.
“Where I’ve ended up in the practice is very different than I expected,” Sherry said. “It’s not been a static experience.”
A native of England, Sherry lived on the East Coast until she attended undergraduate school at the University of California-Riverside, where she experienced her vocational epiphany. “I was somewhat naive and idealistic, but I wanted to do some good for people,” she said.
After enrolling at Washington University School of Law, Sherry made friends, married and put down roots in St. Louis. She worked as a law clerk for Judge Gerald M. Smith of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, and later as an assistant public defender before opening a private practice with another woman attorney.
“And I was pregnant then, which is crazy — a really smart thing to do,” she said, laughing.
During that first year in private practice, however, then-Circuit Judge Melvyn W. Wiesman told her Family Court needed the involvement of more women attorneys and asked her to consider becoming a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of children in court proceedings.
“I thought at first, ‘Ugh, but I’ll try it,’” she said. “I never expected to enjoy it or like it, or feel that I was doing such public service. But eventually it became about 75 percent of my practice emotionally, [even though it represented] 25 percent financially.”
Sherry points to her appointment as an associate circuit judge in 1998 as her most satisfying professional accomplishment. She went first to Family Court, serving additional stints there and in criminal and civil court through the next 20 years. Then-Gov. Jay Nixon appointed her to Circuit Court in 2011; since Jan. 1, 2015, she’s been the Administrative Judge of Family Court, where colleagues and attorneys praised her work to improve and implement policies that benefit children and families involved with the court.
“We’re trying to get these kids to grow up as whole and positive as possible, to get past whatever they did or whatever their parents did to hurt them,” Sherry said. “This work can be incredibly, emotionally stressful, but you need someone who will follow the law and protect the children.”
Sherry has been a longtime member of the Missouri Supreme Court’s Family Court Committee. She’s served as a co-chair of the Missouri Task Force on Children’s Justice and as a member and chair of the St. Louis County Domestic and Family Violence Council. She’s also taught for years at Washington University School of Law and is the mother of an adult son and daughter.
In April, she moved to a general civil/criminal docket. “It’s someone else’s turn,” she said of the switch, “but it’s very bittersweet for me.” While she’s made no decisions, she admits she’s started to consider her next chapter after the bench.
“Maybe mediation, maybe nonprofit [work],” she said. “I don’t know that I’m capable of standing still and doing nothing. I’m hoping for a door to open, and all will be revealed.”