Will the Missouri Supreme Court remain majority-female for more than a month? We’ll know by Christmas Eve.
At a press conference outside his Capitol office on Sept. 12, Gov. Mike Parson named Judge Kelly Broniec the next judge of the state’s highest court.
Broniec, who is currently the chief judge of the Court of Appeals Eastern District, succeeds Judge George W. Draper III, who retired in August. With her appointment, four of the court’s seven judges are women. Broniec is just the sixth woman ever to sit on the court.
However, the announcement came just one day after the formal announcement that one of those four, Judge Patricia Breckenridge, will step down Oct. 13 as she reaches the state’s mandatory retirement age. The Appellate Judicial Commission plans to meet Oct. 23 and 24 to publicly interview applicants and select three finalists to succeed her. Parson then has 60 days to make his second Supreme Court selection of the year, and his third overall.
But the governor made no promises to fill any particular demographic category with his next pick.
“I just want good, qualified people to be on the bench, especially the Supreme Court,” he told reporters. “These are appointments that are going to be long-term. They’re going to affect generations after my generation.”
Broniec noted that her appointment makes the Missouri Supreme Court one of just a few majority-female Supreme Courts in the country.
“It’s a very special opportunity for me and for the court,” she told reporters.
According to the National Center for State Courts, 13 courts of last resort in the U.S. were majority female as of February. In a March 1 publication, the organization said 40.8 percent of sitting judges at that time identified as female, and only three high courts had no female judges.
Parson named Broniec to the Eastern District in 2020. However, he was quick to note that “she’s not exactly from St. Louis,” where the appeals court is based. Broniec previously served for 14 years as the elected associate circuit judge for Montgomery County and was that county’s prosecutor from 1999 to 2006. She remains a resident of Montgomery County, which is about an hour’s drive west of St. Louis.
“She’s from the outskirts of St. Louis, a little bit,” Parson said. “But they can take credit if they want to take credit.”
Broniec became the Eastern District’s chief judge on July 1. She said that once she joins the Supreme Court, which must occur within 30 days of her appointment, the full Eastern District will meet to elect her replacement.
Though she served for only a few months, as chief judge, Broniec led the commissions that chose two judicial panels for St. Louis County and one for the City of St. Louis. Parson’s appointments to fill those vacancies remain pending.
Broniec earned her law degree in 1996 from the University of Missouri. She said her goal on the bench was to act “conscientiously, promptly and consistently with the law as written.”
“I will not be attempting to make laws,” she told reporters. “I will interpret them and apply them to the facts in each case in determining if there were prejudicial legal errors made in the cases that come before us.”
Parson praised that approach and said politics don’t play a role in his judicial appointments.
“I picked her because of her background, where she’s from and who she is,” he said. “If all those chips fall into place and there’s more women on the court, there will be more women on the court. But they’ve got to earn their way to it. I’m not giving it to them.”
It remains to be seen whether Parson will name a judge from his native southern Missouri to the court. The last person from the Southern District on the Supreme Court was Judge John C. Holstein, who served from 1989 to 2002.
The other two finalists to succeed Draper were Judges Michael E. Gardner, who is also on the Eastern District and previously was a judge in Cape Girardeau; and Ginger K. Gooch, a former litigator for Husch Blackwell who was recently appointed to the Southern District.
Parson, who said he would “love to have someone from southwestern Missouri” on the court, specifically alluding to Gooch.
“She was extremely talented,” he said. “I hope I see her name again, to be right honest about it. And I believe I will.”
That, of course, will depend on whom the Appellate Judicial Commission selects as finalists. While most of the 22 other people who interviewed for the Draper vacancy likely would reapply, the demographic makeup of that applicant pool won’t be known until after the application period ends on Oct. 6.
“I don’t know who they’re going to send me in this next panel,” Parson said. “But at the end of the day, it’s still about getting the right person in that position.”