The global pandemic’s start weeks after her appointment as 21st Judicial Circuit Court administrator erased any chance that Hope Whitehead would ease into her new job.
More than two years later, meeting the challenges of maintaining operations at one the state’s largest judicial circuits remains a point of pride for Whitehead. So does also using the unprecedented disruption to innovate and improve, from virtual hearings to online domestic violence orders of protection.
At 62, her varied career includes stints as a New York City social worker, local prosecutor, associate administrative law judge, director of the state Division of Liquor Control, Missouri state representative and four-time gubernatorial appointee.
“My first job was to reorganize the court for this major health crisis,” said Whitehead, whose predecessor Paul Fox held the job for 32 years before retirement. “Now my job is to try and restore the court” to pre-pandemic levels.
A Brooklyn native who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Fordham University, Whitehead has called St. Louis home for 35 years, remaining in the city after her 1990 graduation from Washington University School of Law.
That move followed several years working in New York City’s child welfare system, a job that Whitehead said left her both frustrated and eager to make more of a difference. At her husband’s encouragement, she reached out to a friend who was a lawyer about a possible career change.
“That friend said, ‘You can do this. Be on the inside. Make policy. Get a seat at the table,’” Whitehead recalled. “So I did.”
Whitehead spent the first seven years of her new career as a St. Louis city prosecutor, honing her trial skills and supervising other ACAs before joining the St. Louis Housing Authority as associate general counsel. She was soon appointed by Gov. Mel Carnahan to be state supervisor for the Division of Liquor Control.
The path ahead would wind between public service (legal advisor, Missouri Division of Worker’s Compensation; state legislator; legal advisor for the City of East St. Louis, Illinois; board secretary, St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority) and a dozen years in a general law practice that included criminal, juvenile and family law, worker’s compensation, civil rights, and employment law in federal and state courts.
Among a lengthy list of civic achievements, Whitehead cites her decades-long involvement with the Mound City Bar Association: a former president, she now serves as vice president; as well volunteering with The Empowerment Network for prostate cancer advocacy.
Married for 40 years and the mother of two adult sons, Whitehead finds a special resonance in receiving the Women’s Justice Award, vividly recalling her own personal battles for racial and gender equality in both the courtroom and judges’ chambers.
Two incidents in particular stand out: being asked as a young prosecutor to fetch coffee by a defense lawyer who mistook her for a clerk; and then, while in private practice, standing up to a judge who didn’t try to conceal his chumminess with opposing counsel.
“He would always call my opponent by his first name, but I was ‘Ms. Whitehead.’ You felt like the deck was stacked when you walked through the door,” she said.
“You just have to get over that, do your job and battle through. But just being in the room is not enough.”