Judge Lisa White Hardwick’s legal career has been indelibly marked by two riots.
As a 7-year-old girl in Kansas City, she watched, perplexed, as protestors and police clashed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“My parents explained that it was because people didn’t have hope for the future or that they would have civil rights to protect them,” Hardwick said. “That was the point at which I decided I needed to be a lawyer. I needed to make sure people do have hope about the system and that they have access so they can resolve the disputes they have.”
Forty-six years later, another spate of racial violence convulsed Missouri following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Among the problems that unrest exposed were the predatory practices of some municipal courts, which a U.S. Justice Department found were being used more to fill city coffers than to dispense justice.
Hardwick, now a member of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, was asked by then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge if she would be willing to work on a newly established Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness. Hardwick’s answer: “Absolutely.”
“That’s what my life’s work has been all about,” Hardwick said. “This is an opportunity to really highlight that issue and put some heft behind it.”
Hardwick, Missouri Lawyers Media’s 2022 Woman of the Year, has spent her career breaking barriers. She was the first Black lawyer to join the venerable Kansas City law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, and she later became its first Black partner. She was the first Black woman appointed to a state appeals court. Twice nominated as a finalist for vacancies on the Missouri Supreme Court, she came close to a similar achievement on the state’s highest judicial body.
And eight years after Ferguson, the commission Hardwick co-chairs is poised to recommend ways to uproot the systemic injustices that creep into the justice system. She has more barriers to break, and as befits an appellate judge she’s looking at the facts and the law to do it.
“There’s so many things we’re going to be able to identify once we show statistically that there’s a disparity,” she said. “Then we can say this may be causing it or that may be causing it, and we can begin to deal with it.”
Hardwick’s goal from early in her career was to reach the appellate court, where she felt her opinions would have the most impact. After earning her undergraduate degree in journalism from University of Missouri in 1982 and her law degree from Harvard in 1985, Hardwick worked at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld before returning to her native Kansas City and joining Shook.
But after five years of applying to the Western District without success, she said a member of the Appellate Judicial Commission suggested she seek a spot on the trial court instead. Gov. Mel Carnahan named her to the Jackson County Circuit Court in 2000; a year and a half later, Gov. Bob Holden appointed her to the Court of Appeals Western District, where she serves today.
Hardwick often reminds young lawyers, particularly those of color, that seeking a judgeship is “not a one and done thing,” and that success under the Nonpartisan Court Plan requires building relationships with the commissioners that select finalists for judicial vacancies — a process that can take multiple applications over several years.
“People think you have to have all these political connections, even though it’s called the Nonpartisan Court Plan,” she said. “They think, ‘Well, I don’t know the governor, I don’t know anybody who’s on that court.’ They’re not looking at their skillset and their qualifications; they’re looking at the process as being daunting. So you have to tell them, you’re not only qualified, but this system is set up so that if you get to know the people in system you have a much better chance of convincing them you’re the right person for the job.”
Hardwick knows full well how daunting that process can be. Though she describes the Western District as her “ideal job,” she also has applied for seats on the Missouri Supreme Court. In 2008 she was a finalist for the vacancy ultimately filled by Judge Zel M. Fischer, and in 2017 she was a nominee for the seat that went to Judge W. Brent Powell. In both instances, supporters of Republican Govs. Matt Blunt and Eric Greitens complained that most of the candidates had insufficiently conservative backgrounds — including Hardwick, whose court appointments came from Democratic governors.
Hardwick, however, says the process looked far different on the inside and that the governors were “not as focused on it as a political process as they are on trying to get a person who will serve well on the Supreme Court.”
“I’ve never felt through that whole process that I was given short shrift,” she said. “I may not have been the political choice of those folks, but I always felt that I got my chance to speak my piece and present myself. I think the fruits that been born out of that process are great for Missouri.”
Hardwick most recently applied for the Supreme Court vacancy in 2021 that ultimately went to Judge Robin Ransom, the first Black woman to sit on the state’s high court. Hardwick didn’t rule out future applications to the Supreme Court but said it “would depend on the circumstances.”
For now, that leaves a big part of Hardwick’s legacy in her work as one of four co-chairs of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness. It’s a sprawling task force with dozens of members who sit on subcommittees that examine everything from criminal courts to juvenile justice, with a set of recommendations for the Supreme Court to consider expected to be released in the fall.
Hardwick chairs the Systemic Racism Work Group, which is working with Shook, Hardy & Bacon and Missouri State University to conduct a statewide study of racial bias in the courts. She said the group is examining some 11 years’ worth of data in Missouri criminal cases. She hopes the resulting statistics, while discouraging, will at least persuade a critical mass of people that systemic racism and unconscious bias are real and pressing problems.
“It means we have things built into our system that have put certain people at a disadvantage,” Hardwick said. “It’s just the way the system operates. Things have always operated this way, and we don’t realize, over time, how this has created a problem, how it’s created injustice. But the statistics are undeniable, in my view, that something is going on and it’s not just one court or one judge. It’s the way the entire system works.”
There’s a tension between that high-level view of the justice system’s low spots and the day-to day work of appellate review, where particular facts and binding precedent direct the outcome of cases. Hardwick points to one statistic that stands out from the data collected so far: 90 percent of the juvenile offenders certified as adults in Jackson County, she said, are African American. The appeals from those cases, of course, come through her court.
“You cannot use it in a particular case, but it causes you to think about, who are these people? What’s going on here?” Hardwick said. “And while you may not be able to act in that case, you can do something about the system as a whole. That’s the impact it has on me, and I hope that it has on our judges. Just to know what’s going on.”