The Missouri Supreme Court is considering a proposed suspension for a former state judge whose admittedly aggressive re-election campaign is alleged to have tarnished the image of the judiciary.
The court heard arguments on Nov. 9 in a disciplinary case against Philip Prewitt, who was an associate circuit judge in Macon County from 2011 to 2018 and now sits on the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission.
Nancy Ripperger, an attorney for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, argued that Prewitt engaged in “dirty politics” during his unsuccessful bid for re-election and that he threatened to release embarrassing personal information about his opponent, including confidential information he allegedly obtained from a client while in private practice. Ripperger said his actions couldn’t be chalked up to small-town politics.
“What Judge Prewitt fails to acknowledge is that he was both a judge and an attorney, and as such he’s held to a much higher standard than other politicians,” she said. OCDC is seeking a two-year suspension of Prewitt’s law license.
The allegations stem from Prewitt’s contest with current Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Kristen Burks, who challenged him unsuccessfully in 2014 and ousted him from office in 2018.
Prewitt denies having made any threats or discussing any confidential information and says no discipline is warranted. Michael A. Gross, a St. Louis-based appellate attorney who represented Prewitt, said the former judge had been upset with the way Burks conducted her 2014 race and that he’d warned her up front that he intended to run an “aggressive campaign.”
“I don’t want you to run against me, and if you do, there’s no more Mr. Nice Guy,” Gross said his client told Burks.
OCDC alleges that Prewitt threatened to reveal information about extramarital affairs that Burks’ ex-husband engaged in. Prewitt had represented one of the women involved in the affairs in her divorce, and OCDC alleges he used confidential information regarding the affair with his former client.
Gross argued that the affairs were already known in the community and were fair game in the campaign because Burks would be presiding over future divorce cases.
“You may not vote for a candidate for judge who campaigns that way, but it’s relevant,” he said.
The members of the Supreme Court, however, seemed concerned about the overall tone of the judicial race.
“What’s the perception here if this type of nastiness in a judicial campaign occurs?” Judge W. Brent Powell asked.
Judge Mary R. Russell asked about Prewitt’s ongoing duty to protect his former client.
“Wouldn’t a member of the public think, ‘Oh, I bet that attorney got that information from the representation’?” she said. “Even if they didn’t, isn’t there an appearance that perhaps that’s where the information came from?”
Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson said Prewitt’s comments to Burks appeared to be intended “to prevent her from running.” But Gross said he was only trying to dissuade her.
“She had a right to run for judge,” he said. “She did not have a right to have a campaign where things that she would rather not have aired didn’t get aired.”
The Supreme Court previously reprimanded Prewitt in 2015 for violating judicial canons by, among other things, posting on Facebook about decisions and soliciting donations for local charities. OCDC also alleges that Prewitt gave a speech at a local Republican Committee ice cream social during the 2018 campaign in which he made partisan comments and that he materially misrepresented the nature of the earlier reprimand, describing it as “a badge of honor” because the charities included an anti-abortion pregnancy center.
The case is In Re: Prewitt, SC99627.