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Woman of the Year: Barbara Wallace

Barbara Wallace

Barbara Wallace

When Barbara Wallace went to Washington University School of Law in 1973, she thought she wanted a career in politics. But her law classes, particularly torts, captured her attention even as she realized that politics would require her to compromise her ideals.

“As a mediator, I certainly know that compromise is important,” she said. “But I just didn’t think that I could be a good politician.”

Nonetheless, from the moment she earned her law degree in 1976, Wallace’s career has been political — not the politics of legislative bodies and partisanship but rather of women’s role in society in general and the law in particular. Wallace set out to change that.

“I shared a vision with several women,” she said. “We founded the Women’s Lawyers Association in 1976 with a specific purpose of getting more women on the bench.”

Wallace is a fitting choice for Missouri Lawyers Media’s 2023 Woman of the Year. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Justice Awards, which was started in 1999 by our sister paper, the St. Louis Daily Record. Over time, it became one of Missouri Lawyers Media’s premier award programs and was expanded to a statewide audience in 2010, regularly honoring annual classes of 50 or more honorees.

Wallace planted the seeds that make such an expansive field of honorees possible. When she began her career, there were no female judges on the state’s appellate court, nor were there any on circuit courts of either the city or county of St. Louis. But the demographics of the legal community were changing. Wallace was part of the first “mega class” of women at Wash U, when 18 percent of the class was female. Women lawyers certainly weren’t common, but they weren’t rare either — at least within certain roles.

“The bigger firms were more willing, in a sense, to hire a limited number of women because they could absorb that, they could put them in research, they could put them in legal writing,” Wallace said. “There was a hesitancy to have clients have their lawyers be a woman when that was very unusual. Partners would say to me in interviews, ‘What do I do? My clients don’t want a woman. They don’t want to be in that forefront. They just don’t want to take the chance.’ You can understand their hesitancy. It just took time and them getting to know you, to accept that you could do a good job.”

The difficulties that women encountered — and still encounter — in private practice often occur out of sight and are hard to solve. The lack of women serving in leadership roles on the bench, at least, had a clear path for improvement, particularly for courts under the Nonpartisan Court Plan: It needed judicial commissions willing to nominate women for judgeships, and it needed governors willing to appoint them.

It also took patience. For instance, Margaret Nolan became the first woman appointed as a circuit judge in St. Louis County in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that another woman, Maura McShane, joined that bench.

“In some ways it’s kind of easier to be the first of something,” Wallace said. “It’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people, having the right kind of personality that appeals to the majority that you’re trying to break into. It’s the second and the third and the fourth that are harder.”

Wallace certainly knows something about being a first. In 1981, she had been the first woman to be elected president of The Lawyers Association of St. Louis. In 1987, she was elected by fellow lawyers to the 21st Circuit Judicial Commission, a five-member body that selects candidates for judicial vacancies on the St. Louis County Circuit Court. She was the first woman not just in Missouri but in the country to be elected to such a commission.

After prevailing in a three-way race for the position, it was clear to Wallace that a corner had been turned. She had focused her campaign on getting women on the bench, arguing that the lack of female judges was a “glaring omission.”

“We need to seriously look at the female candidates who are applying,” she said.” “They need to be given serious consideration. What can you say to that — ‘No, we shouldn’t’?”

Barbara Wallace

Barbara Wallace (Photo by T.L. Witt)

Though Wallace succeeded in getting a few women nominated for a few associate circuit positions, no female candidates made it onto St. Louis County circuit bench during her six-year term. She did, however, lay the groundwork for change by pushing the commission to alter its deliberation process. At the time, she said, each commissioner would rank each applicant numerically, then average the scores. The effect was that each commissioner could essentially veto an applicant by giving them the bottom rank. The commission switched to a preferential voting system that gave candidates a better shot.

Not long after leaving the commission, Wallace threw her own hat in the ring. In 1995, Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed her as a St. Louis County circuit judge. She would go on to serve as the circuit’s first female presiding judge from 2001 to 2005. She retired in 2017 and is now a mediator with Lexitas.

Prior to her appointment, Wallace had been in private practice in the St. Louis area. Her most famous case was representing Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose after the rock star hit someone taking his picture at Riverport Amphitheater in 1991, prompting a number of civil suits. In a 2011 interview with Missouri Lawyers Media, Wallace recalled the notoriously difficult rocker wearing a shirt to a deposition that said, “St. Louis Sucks.” When one of the cases went to trial, Rose came into court wearing an orange suit reminiscent of prison garb.

“The jury sent a note that said, “Can we order him to do a concert?’” Wallace said. “We settled.”

As a member of the judicial commission, Wallace said she often pressed applicants to explain how they were prepared to be a judge on Day One. Yet in the first week of her own judicial term, Wallace, who had concentrated on civil law as a practitioner, found herself in the unfamiliar position of accepting a guilty plea from a criminal defendant. Required to explain the defendant’s rights, Wallace found herself throwing out references to the U.S. Constitution’s bar on quartering troops in homes before the prosecutor gently helped her get back on track.

“It’s very funny to be a lawyer on Friday and a judge on Monday,” she said. “You’d think there would be some pre-judge training. There isn’t.” (Wallace would go on to serve on the Trial Judge Education Committee, which provides judicial education to judges across the state, as well as the Circuit Court Budget Committee, which determines the budget for the state’s judicial circuits.)

In the half century since Wallace entered law school, women have made massive strides in the law. Currently, 13 of the 32 judges on the Court of Appeals are women — including four of the seven judges of the Southern District, which didn’t get its first female judge until 2001. Five women have served on the Missouri Supreme Court, three of whom are on the seven-member high court now.

The once unusual act of appointing women to the bench now has bipartisan buy-in. Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican, named Ann Covington to both the Court of Appeals Western District and the Missouri Supreme court in the late 1980s. Appointments of women to the bench expanded under Carnahan, a Democrat, and have continued under his successors. For instance, 49 of the 119 judicial appointments so far by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, have gone to women.

“I’ve seen a lot of firsts because I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I’ve seen a lot of women become firsts at things,” Wallace said. “I’m so glad now to see that it’s no big deal.”

Women's Justice Awards 2023

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