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Serving others, improving justice: An interview with Missouri Supreme Court Judge Brent Powell

The Supreme Court of Missouri will convene at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 8, to administer the oath of office as Supreme Court judge to Hon. W. Brent Powell. Powell has been serving in the position following his appointment to fill a vacancy left by the death of Judge Richard Teitelman.

The Missouri Bar caught up with Powell earlier this week to discuss his time in the position so far, as well as how it compares to his past position in the circuit court, what he enjoys most about being a judge, his advice for new Missouri lawyers and more.

The following transcript has been edited for style and clarity; click below for full audio of the interview.

 

What motivated you to apply for the open position on the court?
What I’m real interested in doing is trying to improve the administration of justice in our state. What I gathered from being a trial judge for about nine plus years is while we have a very, very strong judicial system in our state, there are ways that we could improve it. I was very interested in trying to make sure that I could try to play a part in doing that. I got involved when I was a trial judge in a lot of Supreme Court committees to try to improve access to justice and our criminal justice system, and other areas of judicial education, and what I realized very quickly was that we were frequently making recommendations to this court, the Supreme Court, to implement some of our ideas. And if I wanted to play a bigger role in getting some of those ideas and what I believed were ways to improve our judicial system, I needed to be part of the court that made those decisions. And so that was largely what motivated me to be here today.

How has experience in your past roles compared to this role?
Well, it’s very different in just the practical aspects of it. As a trial judge, I had interactions every day with litigants, starting with the elevator. I’d get on the elevator and there were, just usually, a packed elevator full of people going to various courtrooms to deal with their various legal issues that they had pending. And, of course, that obviously also led into my courtroom, where I interacted with them on a one-on-one basis. In our judicial system, unfortunately, a lot of the litigants who come to our judicial system do so representing themselves without lawyers. I found it very interesting, and I enjoyed interacting with them and listening to them to make sure they were guaranteed a fair hearing or a fair trial.

This court is very different. I get on the elevator maybe with a staff member in the morning, but even then very frequently I may not see or interact with many people. But the decisions that we make and the policies that we enact and rules that we enforce frequently then determine how that fair trial for that litigant in that courtroom in Jackson County gets resolved, so that’s why I enjoy doing what I’m doing now, even though I miss that one-on-one interaction that I had with those litigants.

When you were appointed, who was the first person that you were excited to tell?
Well, I was very excited to call my wife, obviously. My wife, who’s also a judge, she was my sounding board frequently, so, of course, she was the very first person that I reached out to. My parents. My father’s a lawyer. My mom’s a probation officer, so they both have been involved in the justice system in one way or the other for years. To call them and to tell them that I was appointed to the court was a memory that I will cherish forever.

What has surprised you the most since entering the role?
I joke frequently that I had no idea that the newest member of the court had to vote first. So it’s a little intimidating when you’re in a room with such wonderfully bright and thoughtful and insightful other judges, and then I have to be the one that actually has to speak first and then vote first, because I want to hear what they have to say frequently beforehand. I will say though, in more seriousness, what I didn’t have a good appreciation for [is] the amount of time and effort that this court spends on deciding whether or not we’re going to accept a case. When someone seeks transfer to our court, we spend a lot of time and effort and energy trying to decide whether or not that is a case that we should take.

What do you enjoy most about being a judge?
Overall, the most important thing for me is that I believe in service to others. Being a judge, I get the opportunity to serve the people of the state of Missouri, and that’s just not only an incredible privilege, but for me a blessing, because I’m kind of a spiritual person, and I believe that we all should try to serve others. But on top of that, I get the opportunity to come to work and work on legal issues that very much interest me. And where as a lawyer might work on a case for years and years and years and years, we get to look at that case for maybe a day or a week or a few hours, and then we get to move on to the next case. And so, we get the opportunity to work on a variety of different legal issues. It’s kind of like being in law school all over again, which, I maybe am a little weird, but I really enjoyed, and so to me it’s an unbelievable opportunity and blessing for me to have the opportunity to do something that I believe in doing at my heart—serving others—and doing it in a profession and a setting that is incredibly engaging and interesting to me.

What are some of the important qualities of a judge?
I think the most important quality of a judge is being a good listener. No matter whether you’re on the court of appeals or you’re a trial judge in a courtroom in Lincoln County, you’ve got to be able to listen to not only the lawyers and the litigants, but your colleagues and those around you who have advice or thoughts on a legal issue. The most important part of what we do as judges and as a judiciary as a whole, is make sure that the process that litigants who come to our court, that that process that they are exposed to is fair. And if people don’t listen, and they don’t have their opportunity to be heard, then to me the system is broken and fails.

Is there anything you think the public might be surprised to know about the court system?
What I usually tell people when I go and talk to church groups and that type of thing about our court system is I tell them that our system isn’t result-based. Justice, I tell them, is a process, not a result. Now for most people, the public, they think of the result. That hey someone does something wrong and they should be punished or there should be some consequences for that. So they see justice as the consequences, the result. But what really justice is is the process—how we get to that result. And it’s real important, again, that that process is fair. And so what I tell people is that, hey, you may not agree with the result at the end of the day, and I may not agree with the result at the end of the day, but for me, the most important thing is to make sure that there was a fair process, so that each side got the opportunity to be heard and argue their case and then the chips fall where they may. And even though the result may not be what one person may think is the right result, it is still justice.

What advice do you have for new lawyers?
I come from a family of lawyers, and so for me, the practice of law is a gift. Because it is, as a spiritual person, I believe that it’s in service to others. And it is—it’s a service industry. And so my best advice for young lawyers is to recognize that you’re getting involved in an industry and to a profession that is service-oriented, [and] your clients frequently will come first; those that you are serving will have to come first. And that’s hard. It’s also very important then to balance that with the need for your own personal time and your own personal commitments, and that balance is hard. But I think a lot of people come into law school with the idea that this is a good profession financially, but in reality, the profession really is about service, not about making money.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Only just to say that, I think, again, while I really want to improve the administration of justice in our state, we have a wonderful, wonderful justice system already, and that is largely because of the practicing lawyers who do it every day. And so I just want to thank all of them for what they do every day in service to their clients, but also to the system as a whole.

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