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Former lawmaker Michael Colona named as judge in St. Louis

Scott Lauck//October 30, 2019

Former lawmaker Michael Colona named as judge in St. Louis

Scott Lauck//October 30, 2019

Former Democratic State Rep. Michael Colona has wanted to be a judge for years. It was a Republican governor who made it happen.

On Oct. 18, Gov. Mike Parson appointed Colona as an associate circuit judge in St. Louis. Colona will fill the vacancy created by Parson’s recent elevation of Judge Madeline Orling Connolly to the circuit bench.

Michael Colona
Colona

Colona currently is the managing attorney of Colona & Gentle in St. Louis. He served in the Missouri House from 2008 to 2016, where he was in the minority party’s leadership during his first two terms and was one of just a handful of openly gay lawmakers.

“I have faith in people and faith in the system,” Colona said in an interview. “I think one of the reasons I was successful in accomplishing what I did in the General Assembly was because of that faith in people and the system. I don’t care about your political identification. If we can work together on good things, let’s work together on good things.”

Colona’s appointment coincides with a quiet milestone for Parson: He has now been in office approximately 17 months, the same length of time as his immediate predecessor. Parson, previously the state’s lieutenant governor, became governor in June 2018 after Gov. Eric Greitens resigned amid criminal charges against him and a House investigation that could have led to his impeachment.

Despite his short tenure, Greitens had an outsized impact on the makeup of the state’s judiciary. As Missouri Lawyers Weekly detailed last year, he filled 38 judicial vacancies, ranging from trial-court level appointments to that of Judge W. Brent Powell to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Including Colona, Parson has named 20 judges to the state’s courts since taking office: two to the Court of Appeals and 18 to trial courts, including four that filled unexpired terms for elected judgeships in rural counties. According to a roster of judicial appointments compiled by Missouri Lawyers Weekly, that’s on par with that of other recent governors — Gov. Jay Nixon had named 20 judges by this point in his firm term, and Gov. Matt Blunt appointed 16 judges during his first year and a half in office.

In a brief interview during a tour of Kansas City-area businesses last week, Parson said he looks for candidates with the expertise to interpret laws “from what they say, not somebody’s opinion.”

“Sometimes I think we get judges on the bench that decide they want to decide the way they think things should be, and that’s not the purpose of the judges,” he said.

Although most judicial appointments occur under the Nonpartisan Court Plan, crossing party lines is rare, though not unheard of. Besides Colona, there are 13 former lawmakers currently in the Missouri judiciary, according to a review of the state’s official manual. Five were appointed under the Court Plan, and another four were appointed to fill unexpired terms in elected circuits. Of those, just one was named by a governor of the opposing party: Clay County Circuit Judge Tim Flook, who served as a Republican in the Missouri House from 2004 to 2010 before Gov. Nixon, a Democrat, appointed him to the bench in 2015.

Parson’s total number of appointments is certain to grow. He is currently weighing the finalists for nonpartisan vacancies in Green and St. Louis counties, and three other vacancies are scheduled to be filled later this year. Parson also faces two vacancies on the Court of Appeals following the recent retirements of Judges Lawrence Mooney and Vic Howard.

If he wins a four-year term as governor in 2020, Parson also could play a major role in reshaping the Missouri Supreme Court: Judges Laura Denvir Stith, Patricia Breckenridge and George W. Draper III all reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2023.

Ten of Parson’s 20 picks are judges who were elevated from a lower bench. Another five were drawn from private practice. That’s effectively flipped from his predecessor’s approach — of Greitens’ 38 appointments, half were drawn from the private sector, and about a quarter were promoted judges.

Parson’s five other appointees were from the public sector, including just one prosecutor. In contrast, prosecutors constituted about a fifth of the 125 appointments that Nixon made during his two terms in office.

Of course, those numbers likely will shift the longer Parson remains in office. Governors can’t replace judges at will, and for appointments under the Nonpartisan Court Plan their picks are limited to the three candidates selected by judicial commissions.

Many of Parson’s judicial picks came surprisingly quick. Although the Nonpartisan Court Plan gives governors 60 days to make their selection, Parson has announced his choice in just 35 days on average. His appointment of Judge Thomas N. Chapman to the Court of Appeals Western District took just 22 days; he chose Judge Robin Ransom for the Eastern District in only 21 days. Colona, however, was announced just two days before the constitutional deadline.

The 22nd Circuit Judicial Commission interviewed 23 applicants for Connolly’s successor. The other finalists announced Aug. 21 were Micah Hall, an attorney in private practice in St. Louis, and Stephen Capizzi, a director for the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. According to Supreme Court records, Colona has applied for 22 judicial vacancies in St. Louis since 2013 and was a finalist for positions in 2017 and again earlier this year.

Colona earned his law degree from Saint Louis University in 1995. After he was term-limited in the House, he contemplated a bid for a state Senate seat but terminated his campaign committee earlier this year.

“I had forgotten how much I enjoyed practicing law,” he said.

Colona began serving as a municipal judge St. Louis earlier this year and previously was in a similar role in Holt’s Summit in central Missouri. He is now wrapping up his private practice and hopes to start on the bench on Nov. 4.

“I’m flattered to the nth degree,” he said. “Please, somebody, don’t pinch me! Don’t wake me up! I love this, I want to get started.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described finalist Stephen Capizzi’s role with the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. He is one of two directors for the board.

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