“I submit that there’s still work to do to truly bring everyone into full citizenship,” Gray said.
Gray, 66, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a Methodist minister father and a career educator mother, said he gravitated to the law at an early age. As the civil-rights era heated up, Gray said he noticed how protests and demonstrations were backed up by action in the courts.
“I decided I wanted to do that, and for as long as I can remember, being a lawyer was the only thing I wanted to be,” he said.
Gray served in a variety of roles, including as an assistant county counselor in Jackson County and in private practice. In 1986, then-Gov. John Ashcroft named Gray to the Jackson County Circuit Court. He was the only African American judge on the court at that time, and one of the few for most of his time on the bench.
Gray said he is particularly gratified that the court has become more diverse in the years since his appointment.
“The short lists that have gone to the governor in the last 10 or 12 years looked very different than the short lists that came before then,” he said. “There have been more women. There have been more people of color. There have been more people with government experience … There’s never, in my estimation, been a compromise on quality.”
Gray remained on the bench for more than 20 years. In 2007, he joined Shook, Hardy & Bacon as a partner, though his retirement brought a renewed commitment to the needs of the bench. He served a one-year term as chair of the National Bar Association’s Judicial Council, a position he used to tout the benefits of an independent and diverse judiciary.
He also pushed state lawmakers to allow a long-awaited pay raise for judges to make sure the bench continues to attract and retain skilled lawyers who otherwise might go into private practice.
These days, Gray splits his time between litigation and mediation. He also helps to lead the firm’s professional-development efforts, serving as a “den mother” to young associates and allowing him to help hone their trial skills.
“We want people who are unafraid to get up on their feet and represent our clients vigorously and in a quality fashion,” he said.
At the time of his appointment to the circuit court, Gray was just 10 years out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Gray said he’d long wanted to be a judge, but the offer came earlier in his career than he expected. He advises younger lawyers these days to be constantly ready to fulfill a goal when a chance comes along. Then it’s time to set new goals. He tries to follow his own advice.
“I hope I don’t have just one pinnacle,” he said. “I hope I have some pinnacles yet.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Judge Jon Gray’s appointment to the Jackson County Circuit Court. He was the only African American judge on the court at the time but was not the first black judge to serve there. We regret the error.