Prior to her retirement, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Gloria Clark Reno served for seven years as an associate circuit judge and 10 years as a circuit judge — including two years as the circuit’s presiding judge.
Yet perhaps the best lesson she ever had on judicial demeanor and temperament came during her time in private practice, when from 1994 to 2002 she was the municipal judge for the city of Northwoods. As a “night court” judge, she quickly learned that the people who had been ticketed for ordinance infractions didn’t want to be there, and that there was usually an underlying reason why they had failed to repair their fence or remove their weeds.
“I knew early on that they were not going to be at their best, and when people show up in court they have a problem,” Reno said. “Therefore, it’s important for the court, for us, to be at our best.”
Reno didn’t have the bench in mind when she earned her law degree in 1986 from Saint Louis University. She had always simply wanted to be a lawyer — inspired, she said, by her vigorous discussions with father.
“He said, ‘You need to be a lawyer because you hate to lose an argument,’” she said.
Reno worked as a public defender from 1988 to 1992, then went into private practice, first with the firm Caldwell Hughes & Singleton and later with the firm run by Larry Hale. Reno said it was Hale, who died earlier this year, who encouraged her to become a judge. (Hale, who also is a 202 ICON Awards honoree, also played a role in the careers of St. Louis County Circuit Judge David L. Vincent III and St. Louis Circuit Judge Calea Stovall-Reid.)
The 21st Circuit Judicial Commission selected Reno as a finalist for an associate circuit vacancy in 2002, and Gov. Bob Holden named her as the first Black woman to be appointed to the St. Louis County court. She was exposed to a wider range of issues than she had seen in municipal court, including family and criminal dockets. Those duties expanded further in 2009 when Gov. Jay Nixon named her to the circuit bench.
“I enjoyed being a judge. It is a great career,” she said. “It is a great opportunity to serve the citizens here in St. Louis County. I really viewed it as a great honor.”
Then in 2018, her fellow judges chose her as the circuit’s presiding judge, the first Black judge to hold that position in St. Louis County. She served in that capacity until her retirement in 2019.
“Generally speaking, when you are an associate or even a circuit judge, you are really involved in your division, your docket,” she said. “You know basically how the court operates, but it’s not at the kind of level as when you’re the presiding judge and really realize the responsibilities to make sure that the court is functioning properly and that the citizens of St. Louis County are being served.”
Reno also was part of the ongoing effort to better integrate the municipal courts into the wider court system. From her experience, she said, she knew it was important to keep someone with a $50 parking ticket from spiraling into $500 of debt because they missed a court date.
It also brought home to her the lessons she began learning during her service in night court a quarter-century before, and that her predecessors have proved about the importance of a diverse bench.
“You always want to make sure you do a good job so that you leave the door open for others to follow,” she said. “You want to make sure that you do the very best job that you can with whatever job you’re given.”