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WJA 2021: Woman of the Year, Susan E. Block

Susan E. Block

Block

Susan Block likes to say she did her career in reverse. 

After a winding route through law school, she spent a quarter century as a judge before entering private practice. As a result, she brings a reformer’s eye to the legal system, particularly as it relates to the children and families she once saw on the bench and now represents in court. She is one of the few former judges in Missouri with an active trial practice. 

Forty-six years into her legal career, Block, Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s 2021 Woman of the Year, puts her heart into every matter, tackles the cases that only an experienced litigator can handle and makes the arguments her colleagues are sure no judge will buy. 

“I was a judge that did some of those things, so I’m kind of hoping maybe there’s another judge who would be open to a different way of viewing things,” Block said. “Otherwise, really, you could do this whole thing by computer, couldn’t you?” 

Block’s original plan was to become a social worker, but her father, who had regarded her as the son he never had, insisted that she try the career in law that he’d always wanted. 

“He believed that the only thing people could not steal from you was your education,” Block said of her father. “I would not have called him a feminist, but at least with respect to me he thought I could do anything. How fortunate is that?” 

After earning her undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1965, Block chose George Washington University because it was the law school with the most women — nine out of 900 students. She endured the kinds of questions — What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Why are you taking a spot that could have gone to a man? — that are anachronisms today, when women comprise more than half of law students. 

“It’s almost even hard to explain, particularly to young women, how different it is,” she said. 

Block married shortly after the end of her first year of law school and moved with her then-husband to St. Louis. She eventually resumed her legal studies at Saint Louis University School of Law, earning her degree in 1975. With children still at home and female lawyers still a rarity, she found a position with Murray Stone, an attorney in St. Louis who spent part of the year in Jefferson City as a state representative. 

In 1978, just a few years out of law school and with several elections as a Democratic campaign aide under her belt, she ran against an incumbent magistrate judge. To her own surprise, she won. She became both the first and last woman to be elected as a partisan judge in St. Louis County; the following year, magistrate positions were converted to associate judgeships under the Nonpartisan Court Plan. She was repeatedly retained, and in 1995 Gov. Mel Carnahan elevated her to the circuit bench.  

In a nod to her original desire to be a social worker, Block oversaw the court’s juvenile division for seven years. Amid the stacks of cases she started to pick out the common threads. She recalled butting heads with a well-intention state regulation that required a mother to provide a separate bed for her child before they could be reunited. During the three months the mother had to save up for a $200 bed, the state would spend at least six times that amount by keeping the child in foster care — not to mention the additional trauma the delay would cause the family.  

So Block bought the bed herself. Eventually, she founded Caring for Kids, an organization she estimates has provided about 1,000 such beds for families that need them. 

Block also established a truancy court, recruiting lawyers and judges to delve deeper into why the kids weren’t going to school. She discovered that it wasn’t that the kids didn’t want an education. Instead, they were wrestling with issues ranging from bullying to domestic abuse to lack of food.  

“One kid had a broken window; in the winter, he didn’t want to get out of bed,” Block said. 

Similarly, she began to notice that the kids on her delinquency docket were often the same as those on her abuse-and-neglect docket. Yet the deputies who ran those two dockets didn’t even know each other. Block created a “crossover” docket to address both issues together.  

Block admits that her reforms weren’t always well liked. 

“Nobody really likes someone coming into a system that they, with the best of intentions, thought was the best system,” she said. 

Block’s judicial career concluded with her retirement at the end of 2003, but her interest in juvenile issues and her desire to improve the system continues to this day. Block went from the bench to Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal, where she is among the state’s most formidable family lawyers, handling matters that include divorce, child custody, paternity and domestic partnership conflicts. 

While she can no longer simply order the changes she wishes to see, she remains committed to reforming the system she once oversaw. She was a founding member of the Washington University Project for Children and Youth and a member of the first board of directors for the National Truancy Prevention Association. 

She also serves on the juvenile subcommittee of the Missouri Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Ethnic Fairness. She is pushing to end the widespread practice of allowing juveniles to waive their right to a lawyer without the assistance of counsel. After all, she argues, if a child is incompetent under the law, how they can waive their right to a lawyer? 

“If I had any gift that I brought, it was not intellectual brilliance. It might not have even been heart,” Block said of her career. “It was practical common sense.” 

Women's Justice Awards 2021

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