A military coup in the country she called home until age 10 sent Shirley Padmore Mensah from Liberia, where her grandfather had been an ambassador, to Wilmington, Delaware, where the family resettled as political refugees.
As it would for any child, the experience had a profound impact on Mensah, a U.S. magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Missouri since 2012 and chief magistrate since January 2021.
The Washington University School of Law graduate recounted to the school alumni magazine how soldiers with machine guns stormed the family home, a “lawlessness” that gave her a profound appreciation for the rule of law.
So did the example set by her father, a lawyer and movie theater operator in Liberia who, like many immigrants, would reinvent himself and eventually work as an administrative law judge for the Delaware public utilities commission, even without a U.S. law license.
“As early as I can remember, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my answer was consistently a lawyer,” said Mensah, who earned an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. “I thought my Dad was the smartest person on the planet. He seemed to have a wealth of knowledge — and I thought all lawyers were like him.”
After her first year at WashU Law, Mensah joined what is now Husch Blackwell as a summer clerk — with a post-graduation job offer in hand by the end of summer. She would remain there for 17 more years, the final nine as partner, in a practice concentrated in the areas of commercial litigation, construction litigation, general business and product liability litigation.
She also spent more than a decade as an adjunct law professor at her alma mater, teaching trial practice and procedure in a clinical skills course.
Her path to the bench began with a Husch partner’s observation about Mensah’s “judicial temperament” — a characterization of which she said, “I don’t know if it was intended to be constructive criticism or a compliment — because I was a litigator, and I was supposed to be advocating. But the seed was planted early.”
That temperament would be put to the test after a 2014 formal accusation of four defendants in a deadly St. Louis drug conspiracy case threatened to unravel over claims that evidence collected by Atlanta DEA agents had been tainted by a secret affair between a DEA supervisor and a confidential informant.
“It was a fascinating case with significant due process issues,” she said. “We had a 11-day suppression hearing, and it took us years to even get to that point. It was really eye-opening as to how much responsibility (a magistrate judgeship) imposes on you. I was pleased that I was able to navigate through those issues, thanks to great lawyers on both sides. I got that case early in my career, and I grew with the case.”
With nearly four years remaining in her term as chief magistrate, and continued service on the Judicial Conference of the United States’ Defender Services Committee, Mensah is comfortable in a position that by its nature can be isolating.
“I didn’t have the sense of isolation that people warned me about,” she said. “I get to do everything I love most about the practice of law: studying the law, understanding it and applying it – and my sole responsibility is to do justice, to try to get it right every time.
“I’m still an advocate — but now I’m an advocate for justice, not the defendant or the plaintiff.”