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Russell reflects on change as women take charge of Missouri’s legal system

Scott Lauck//September 15, 2023

Mary R. Russell speaks from behind a lectern at the Missouri Bar annual meeting

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell speaks at the 2023 Missouri Bar Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Scott Lauck)

Russell reflects on change as women take charge of Missouri’s legal system

Scott Lauck//September 15, 2023

Chief Justice Mary R. Russell, now in her second term as head of the state’s court system, has plenty of experience on stage. But as she reflected on the week’s momentous leaps in female leadership within Missouri’s legal system, her polished delivery faltered for a moment.

“Each time a woman joins the Court, it resonates deeply with me,” Russell said, her voice cracking. “Women of my generation have been the only woman at the table or the only woman in the room, and so the thought of now having a majority of women on the Supreme Court of Missouri, even if it is only for a month, leaves me too emotional for words.”

Russell, speaking on Sept. 14 at the 2023 Missouri Bar Annual Meeting in Kansas City, was referring to the appointment earlier in the week of Judge Kelly Broniec, whom she introduced as the newest member of the court. Broniec’s appointment makes the Supreme Court majority female — at least until Oct. 13, when Judge Patricia Breckenridge retires.

The bar meeting also marked the passing of the gavel from outgoing Bar President Lauren Tucker McCubbin to the current president, Megan Phillips. With president-elect Shelley Dryer set to take over next year and newly elected vice president Athena Dickson, it is the first time the bar’s leaders all are women.

“To my generation and those before us, it’s a really big deal,” Phillips said in her inaugural address. “Hopefully for the younger folks, it’s totally normal, nothing to see here — and that’s a good thing.”

Russell noted that more than a third of Missouri attorneys are women and that, for the first time, all four of Missouri law schools have more female than male students.

“This is revolutionary to me, given my own memories of law school,” she said. “We had so few women, the women’s restroom was about the size of closet.”

Russell herself is breaking a barrier of sorts: of the four women to have served as chief justice of the Supreme Court, she is the first to do so twice. She previously served as chief justice from 2013 to 2015.

The role of women in the legal community isn’t the only thing that has changed since then. She highlighted the court system’s increased use of video technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recent rules changes that give the public greater online access to court records while requiring attorneys to take more care in redacting confidential information.

“Before you know it, redaction will be as routine as e-filing, and we will have succeeded in making our justice system so much more accessible and transparent for the public we all serve,” Russell said. “And besides, by next year, we’ll be worrying about AI.”

Russell vowed to travel to all 46 judicial circuits in the state during the next two years to meet court employees and thank them for their efforts.

Russell was in private practice in Hannibal until Gov. Mel Carnahan named her to the Court of Appeals Eastern District in 1995. Gov. Bob Holden elevated her to the Supreme Court in 2004.

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