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Judge Richard Teitelman, liberal lion of Missouri Supreme Court, dies at 69

Judge Richard Teitelman sat on the Missouri Supreme Court for more than 14 years.
Judge Richard Teitelman sat on the Missouri Supreme Court for more than 14 years.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. with additional comments and information on the replacement process.

A leading liberal voice in the Missouri legal community has died.

Judge Richard Teitelman was 69. The Missouri Supreme Court confirmed his death in a brief press release Tuesday morning.  Teitelman had been dealing with health problems for some time, including complications from diabetes.

In a statement, Gov. Jay Nixon said, “Missourians have lost a judicial leader who dedicated his life over more than four decades in service to the people of this state and to our legal system, both as a Judge of the Missouri Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals and during a long career with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Judge Teitelman will be remembered not only for his breaking new ground as the first legally blind judge to sit on Missouri’s highest court, but also for his legal skills and his passion for justice. He truly listened to, and never forgot, those who needed justice the most. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and colleagues.”

A Philadelphia native, Judge Teitelman came to St. Louis to attend Washington University law school, and never left. He spent 18 years with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri before being appointed in 1998 to the Missouri Court of Appeals by Gov. Mel Carnahan. He was then appointed to the state high court by Gov. Bob Holden in 2002. Voters retained Judge Teitelman in 2004 and again in 2016, by wide margins. He served as the court's chief judge between 2011 and 2013.

Judge Richard Teitelman sat on the Missouri Supreme Court for more than 14 years.
Credit Courtesy Supreme Court of Missouri
Judge Richard Teitelman sat on the Missouri Supreme Court for more than 14 years.

Teitelman held the distinction of being both the first Jewish and the first legally blind justice on the Missouri Supreme Court. He did have limited vision.

Lawyer Chuck Hatfield, who estimated he had argued at least a dozen cases before Teitelman and the Supreme Court, called Teitelman a legal giant and "one of the nicest men I've ever known."

Before court proceedings, Teitelman had a habit — before donning his robes — of mingling with the audience and greeting lawyers and others.

During his periodic two-year stints as the chief judge —a role that circulated among the court —Teitelman would always end court proceedings by complimenting the lawyers on both sides of a case.

Teitelman also often laced his queries from the bench with references to Missouri history and politics.

Attorney General Chris Koster said he was deeply saddened to learn of Teitleman's passing.

"Judge Teitelman has given our state a lifetime of public service, including two decades at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri representing the most vulnerable of our citizens.  We will miss his wisdom, humor, and friendship," Koster said in a statement.

Teitelman was known to many as simply “Judge Rick.”

Lawyer Jane Dueker was Holden’s legal counsel when Teitelman was named to the state’s highest court and spoke at the judge’s swearing in.  Since then, she has argued at least 10 cases before him.

Dueker called him “a voice for the voiceless.”

Oral arguments in five cases scheduled for Monday were canceled in Judge Teitelman's honor. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Choosing replacement is likely to be controversial

The mourning of his death will likely soon shift to the political aspects of how – and when – to name his replacement. And who will do it.

Under Missouri’s nonpartisan court plan, it will be up to the governor to choose a successor from three nominees chosen by an already in place commission made up of members of the Missouri Bar and gubernatorial appointees.

But it will be up to current Chief Judge Patricia Breckenridge to call the commission into action. At issue will be whether she acts soon, which would allow Gov. Jay Nixon – a Democrat – to appoint a replacement before Nixon leaves office on Jan. 9.

Or does she wait and leave the decision to the incoming governor, Republican Eric Greitens.

Once the commission presented its three nominees, a governor has 60 days to choose one – or the commission makes the decision.

Some Republicans have long been critical of the state’s judicial-selection process for its highest courts and the urban areas, particularly because the state Senate – now controlled by the GOP – has no role in the process. Some Republicans would like to see Missouri, at minimum, shift to a system that mirrors the federal setup, where the president nominates judges and the U.S. Senate confirms or rejects them.

Others would like to see Missouri return to its old system of elected judges. Currently, only rural judges are elected. The nonpartisan court plan was put in place about 70 years ago, in the early 1940s, in part in response to alleged corruption on the courts in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Breckenridge is well acquainted with the current partisan controversy.  She was named to the high court in 2007 by then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican. But he had publicly complained that she and the other two commission nominees had been too liberal, and had called for changes so that he could have made a more conservative choice.

Some Democrats already are privately encouraging Breckenridge to wait to allow Greitens to name Teitelman’s successor, in order to generate GOP goodwill.  Others say that Republicans will likely target the court regardless, and contend that Breckenridge should act quickly so that Teitelman’s replacement can be named by Nixon.

Greitens' statement, issued around noon, made no reference to the looming debate:  "Today we mourn the passing of Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman. He dedicated his life to the service of Missourians and was deeply committed to justice. Judge Teitelman was a trailblazer, serving as both the first Jewish and first legally blind jurist on our state's highest court. His life serves as a reminder to every Missourian that nothing should stand in the way of passionate public service. He was a man known for his kindness and warm spirit, and he will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends, colleagues, and family." 

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