“It was not exactly a hotbed of international law,” said Sheffield, a North Carolina native. “But I thought: A lawyer can work anywhere.”
She was right. After practicing law in Salem and Rolla, Sheffield was elected to serve as associate circuit judge in Phelps County in 1983. She won a 25th Circuit judgeship in 2004, then was appointed in 2012 to the Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District, a seat she has retained.
As things turned out, she didn’t have to forego her initial dream. While her career unfolded in Missouri, she was appointed in 2003 as one of the International Liaison Network Judges for the Hague Convention on Child Abduction. She remains one of only four American judges to hold this position, in which she coordinates with the State Department and helps her domestic colleagues to understand the Convention and to confer with judges abroad. She has represented the United States on Convention issues in more than a dozen countries, fulfilling her earlier ambition of international legal work.
“Life can be a circle,” she said.
Apart from her interest in cross-border child abduction, Sheffield is concerned with problems local families face. As an associate circuit judge in Phelps County working on domestic dockets, she learned of abused women who had to publicly request loans from their local city councils to find temporary shelter. Sheffield considered that to be an inadequate solution and co-founded Russell House, which provides victims of domestic violence with shelter and court-advocacy services. The judge herself remembers installing floor tiles and sheetrock at the original facility in Rolla.
In addition, she brought the Court Appointed Special Advocate program to her 25th Circuit. CASA volunteers advocate for children in abuse and neglect court proceedings.
In 2004, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed Sheffield to chair its Family Court Committee, a leadership role she held until 2015. She now chairs the Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Committee.
And yet for all of her involvement in family courts, it doesn’t even represent her favorite branch of the law.
“The one I enjoy intellectually is criminal law,” she said, “and I never thought I would.” She likes grappling with the constitutional issues that criminal cases entail, and she watches closely as appeals wend their way up to the higher courts. Her aim is to see if she interpreted the law in a useful way.
“I follow that very closely,” she said. Upon being overturned, she takes no offense, and learns from it. “I want some guidance.”
When she first took the bench in the 1980s, she recalls only about a dozen female colleagues in Missouri’s judiciary. Yet she didn’t let that intimidate her, and she made her own way. Now she endeavors to help out all younger attorneys, male or female.
“People helped me along the way,” she said. “So if I can give you a hand, why shouldn’t I?”