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Russell reflects on term as chief justice of Missouri Supreme Court

Mary Russell discusses her tenure as chief justice with reporters Tuesday.
Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Mary Russell says she's mostly satisfied with her two-year term as chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, which ends next week on June 30.

She took over as chief in July 2013 after fellow Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman wrapped up his two-year term.

Russell's tenure coincided with the resumption of executions in Missouri, which have been on a record pace as 16 convicted killers have been put to death since November 2013.  Russell says the increase is due to several factors.

"There's been a backlog of people with the death penalty with appeals pending in the federal courts, and some of those appeals were pending in-state because of a controversy over the method of execution, the drug that was to be used," Russell told a group of reporters Tuesday.

Executions had also been suspended due to difficulty obtaining enough doses of propofol, the state's former designated execution drug.  The decision by Missouri to use that drug led the German-based manufacturer to threaten to cut off shipments of propofol, which is primarily used by hospitals as an anesthetic.

Executions in Missouri resumed after the state began using pentobarbital, which can be compounded at local pharmacies.

Russell also said the High Court only issues execution orders once all appeals and motions have been exhausted, and that each order request originates from the state Attorney General's office.

"It's not anything that we relish," Russell said.  "It's not that we agree or disagree with the death penalty; it's the law, and ... we take an oath to follow the law, whether we like the law (or not), which is written by the legislature -- that's their policy."

Russell also oversaw a rule change that requires municipal court judges to give people more time to pay fines if they can demonstrate they are unable to pay it.  The new rule came in the wake of last year's unrest in Ferguson.

"(We made it) crystal clear that no one could be put into jail for failure to pay a fine," Russell said.  "We do not have debtor's prisons in Missouri."

Her tenure also included expanding the use of "21st century technology" to make Missouri's court system more efficient.

"We started e-filing in September 2011, here with this court," Russell said.  "Now we have 82 courts that are e-filing, we expect to have a hundred by the end of this calendar year, and by a year from now we expect to have all courts (in Missouri) with e-filing."

Russell also discussed things she wanted to accomplish that did not happen, including expanding virtual courts statewide and making it easier for citizens to participate in jury duty.  She also wanted to see more of an increase in court-appointed special advocates for kids in Missouri who suffer abuse.

"We have 14,000 children in foster care in Missouri right now, and that's due to no fault of the child," Russell said.  "It's because of some abuse or neglect that's occurred to the child … only 3,000 of these children have an advocate speaking for them."

She's also past president of the Missouri chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

Russell was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court in September 2004 by then-Gov. Bob Holden.  She served as a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, from 1995 to 2004. She will remain on the state Supreme Court after Patricia Breckenridge takes over as chief justice on July 1.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.