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Home / Featured / Off the bench: Judge Lawrence E. Mooney to retire in September after serving 20 years

Off the bench: Judge Lawrence E. Mooney to retire in September after serving 20 years

The legal landscape has changed dramatically in the 20 years that Judge Lawrence E. Mooney has been on the bench. He knows that better than anyone.

Mooney, one of the few openly gay judges in Missouri, will retire Sept. 1 from the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, the court announced July 10. His last day on the bench will come just shy of his 70th birthday, when the Missouri Constitution requires judges to retire.



In 2014, in what seems like a legal age ago, Mooney and his partner, Dr. James D. Reid, became one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Missouri. After a St. Louis circuit judge struck down a state constitutional provision prohibiting same-sex marriage licenses, St. Louis County began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Mooney and his husband, who have been together since 1995, took immediate advantage.

“We had long wanted to be married, but of course that was our first opportunity,” he said.

At the time, though, it was not then clear that the circuit court’s ruling would survive on appeal — it was not until the following year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the U.S Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage as a fundamental right nationwide.

The progress of same-sex marriage through the courts, Mooney said, made him “acutely aware of how the law truly affects people’s lives” — an understanding he has brought to his own work on the bench.

“I think, probably, being gay has made me more sensitive to litigants and causes where people claim to be excluded in some fashion. It makes me understand what that might feel like,” he said. “At the same time I realize that being gay is only part of my identity, and I’ve never found it difficult to find common ground with people.”

Mooney was appointed to the Eastern District in 1998 by Gov. Mel Carnahan. At the time, he said, he was probably the first openly gay person some of his colleagues had ever known.

“I don’t particularly try to identify myself first as a gay judge, but I think it is probably how people first perceived me when I was on the court,” he said.

Prior to his appointment, Mooney worked for much of his career with longtime St. Louis County official Buzz Westfall, serving as his first assistant prosecuting attorney from 1979 to 1990, then as Westfall’s executive assistant in the St. Louis County Executive’s Office until 1998.

A St. Louis native, Mooney earned his law degree from Saint Louis University and early in his legal career worked briefly for the law firm then known as Padberg, McSweeney, Slater, Merz & Reid. Mooney said two of his five siblings also became lawyers, which he attributes to his father, a life insurance salesman with a love of the law.

“I think it was because we heard him around the dinner table saying that was the course he wished he’d followed,” Mooney said. “I realized as early as high school that’s what I wanted to do.”

In a statement, Eastern District Chief Judge Colleen M. Dolan called Mooney “one of the most well-known and well-liked judges to have ever served on the Court of Appeals.”

“For over two decades, his writing and editing skills have been invaluable. His wit and wisdom will be sorely missed,” she said.

Mooney’s opinions often have an unmistakable style. In 2014, he authored a 180-page opinion regarding a massive verdict against Fluor Corp. and two subsidiaries for lead poisoning suffered by residents who grew up near its smelter in Herculaneum. As part of the complex ruling, the court cut $240 million in punitive damages from the original $358.5 million jury verdict. Yet while Mooney’s opinion sided legally with the defendants, it favored the plaintiffs emotionally.

“‘Our Tigger.’ That is what Austin Manning’s parents called him when he was a little boy, because he bounced around like Tigger from the classic tale, Winnie the Pooh,” Mooney’s opinion begins. “He never sat still for more than a second. At the time, the family thought it was cute. Little did they know of the problems to come.”

Mooney said the record in the case was tens of thousands of pages long.

“I was thrilled when I finally signed the opinion,” he said. “It took a very long time to write.”

In 2017, he wrote the opinion in one of the court’s more unusual legal disputes — a pet shelter that refused to return a dog to its family after the dog ran away too many times. The court refused to enforce the contract that purported to give the animal rescue group a reversionary interest in the dog, Mack.

“‘Every dog must have his day,’” Mooney wrote. “And today is Mack’s day.”

For the past four years, Mooney has served as the Eastern District’s settlement judge, helping the parties for some cases on appeal to resolve their issues without the need for further litigation or an opinion from the court. Mooney said that program has been in place for about 30 years, though in the past it was sometimes conducted by a retired judge.

“We found that it just wasn’t quite as effective,” he said. “It helps more to have a sitting judge discuss the case with the parties and their attorneys to see whether it could be mediated.”

After his retirement, Mooney said he plans to continue similar work and hopes to affiliate with a law firm or mediation service.

RELATED: Judge Mooney’s keynote speech at the 2019 Diversity & Inclusion Awards