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History-making Rahmeyer not finished yet

Retired appellate judge reflects as she plans her next step

Scott Lauck//November 2, 2021//

History-making Rahmeyer not finished yet

Retired appellate judge reflects as she plans her next step

Scott Lauck//November 2, 2021//

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Judge Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer made history when she became the first woman appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District. What bugs her is how recent that history is.

“It makes it sound like it was 1850 or something, right?” she said. “It was 2001. To me, to even be talking about being the first of anything in 2001 is awful, but there we are.”

Twenty years later, Rahmeyer has brought that history to a close with her retirement on Oct. 8. The Appellate Judicial Commission is scheduled to select her successor on Nov. 22.

In an interview, Rahmeyer said she left the court not because she was ready to retire but because she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. To the extent that she has settled on her next step, it is pursuing the issues that drew her passion on the bench — particularly those she expressed in her numerous dissents. 

“I have strong feelings on many issues,” she said. “You can tell by my opinions.”

One case that haunts her is that of Zackary Stewart, a high school student convicted of murdering a man in 2006. The Southern District affirmed the conviction in 2009 over Rahmeyer’s dissent, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the following year that Stewart deserved a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. Stone County prosecutors then dropped the case against Stewart, later convicting his brother-in-law of the crime.

Rahmeyer said she is considering a larger writing project about the case, which remains “seared into my mind.”

“It spoke of so many things in our criminal justice system that need to be addressed,” she said.

Family issues, particularly cases involving termination of parental rights, are, as she puts it, a “bugaboo for me.” One memorable case came in 2014, when she wrote a dissenting opinion that transferred a case to the Supreme Court involving a man who lost rights to his three sons because his broken promises had disappointed them. 

The case, she wrote at the time, “gives lip service to the proposition that the right to raise a child is a fundamental liberty interest.” 

“Children do not know what is good for them at that age and children change their minds,” Rahmeyer wrote in her dissent. The Supreme Court, however, affirmed the termination.

“I am very adamant that less than perfect parents are better than turning it over to the state,” Rahmeyer said in her interview. “When children are abused in foster care or they have 10 different foster parents, we say that’s somehow better than dirt on the floor or cockroaches in their building or in their home.”

Gov. Bob Holden cited Rahmeyer’s experience in family matters when he named her to the court, saying in a statement at the time that “her background in dealing with family and children’s issues will add a new dimension to the court and the judiciary.” She had been in private practice in Springfield since 1989 and had served as part-time municipal judge. A native of Iowa, she earned her law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1987.

Holden’s choice of a woman for the seven-member Southern District came long after the gender barrier was broken on other courts. Judge Ann Covington was named to the Western District in 1987 and became the first woman to sit on the Missouri Supreme Court in 1989. Judge Jean Hamilton became the first woman to serve on the Eastern District in 1988. And, of course, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.

Rahmeyer said she had a “rocky beginning,” with some male judges then on the court making it a point to make her feel unwanted or excluding her from events. While serving as the court’s chief judge from 2002 to 2004, she said the other judges set up a meeting without her to pick who they wanted as a candidate for a vacancy on the court, though they later thought better of it and made no endorsement, in part because she argued that it violated the spirit of the Nonpartisan Court Plan.

“We did not and have not ever endorsed anyone,” she said. “We don’t as a court en banc. I don’t know what they did before me, but I know they haven’t since then.”

Rahmeyer also served as chief judge from 2017 to 2019. She also served as the chair of the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline, which oversees judicial discipline, and 10 years ago she was one of six appellate judges tapped to draw the state’s legislative districts. One potential benefit of her retirement is that she won’t be asked to do that job again. 

“I was a reluctant participant in redistricting, and I think most of my other fellow judges felt that way too,” she said. “This is just a job we’re going to get stuck doing. We are not supposed to be political animals, and yet they want us to have political solutions, and we don’t have them.”

Which isn’t to say that Rahmeyer is uninterested in public policy. She has concerns on issues ranging from mass incarceration to consumer rights to housing. She is, she said, “not burned out.”

“I kind of think I owe something back. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity I’ve had in this whole system of justice. I really do. Those aren’t just words; you can tell I love it.” 

RELATED: Rahmeyer to retire from Southern District 

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