© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Teitelman pictured in this June 1, 2016 file photo, has died at the age of 69. Teitelman was the first legally blind and Jewish judge to serve on Missouri’s highest court.
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI

Updated at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday with audio of obituary.

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

Judge Richard Teitelman was 69. The Missouri Supreme Court confirmed his death, saying Tuesday that he had died in the morning at his home in St. Louis. Teitelman had been experiencing 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.”

Teitelman was honored with numerous awards throughout his career, including The Missouri Bar’s President’s Award, Spurgeon Smithson Award and Purcell Award for Professionalism; awards from the Bar
Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and Mound City Bar Association; and awards from the National Conference of Metropolitan Courts, the American Jewish Congress, the American Council for the Blind and the St. Louis Society for the Blind.

A native of Philadelphia, Judge Teitelman came to St. Louis for law school at Washington University, and never left. After two years in private practice, he joined the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in 1975, and quickly became the organization’s director.

It was under his stewardship that the agency, which provides indigent legal representation in civil court matters, gained resources and respect, said Mike Wolff, the outgoing dean of the Saint Louis University law school, a former member of the state Supreme Court and a longtime friend and colleague of Judge Teitelman.

“He employed a very personal strategy to make Legal Services a very socially acceptable cause in the legal community,” Judge Wolff said. “That’s a very significant accomplishment. These are not popular cases.”

Teitelman organized the first Justice for All Ball – a “lawyer’s prom,” Judge Wolff called it.

“If you have several hundred lawyers of various political stripes and ideologies showing up to benefit Legal Services, that’s truly amazing,” Judge Wolff said.

During Judge Teitelman’s time at Legal Services, the agency brought, and won, a case that forced Missouri to provide Medicaid coverage for anti-retroviral therapy used to treat AIDS. Teitelman also directed the agency’s efforts to force St. Louis to provide services to its homeless population.

“The city was looking into the problem of homelessness,” said attorney Ken Chackes, who helped argue the case for Teitelman. “Having a lawsuit that the city finally agreed to settle with a consent decree ensured that the ideas that were behind the task force were implemented.”

Appointment to the bench

Gov. Mel Carnahan named Judge Teitelman to the Missouri Court of Appeals in 1998. Another Democrat, Gov. Bob Holden, elevated him to the state Supreme Court 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.

“I thought it was a terrific appointment,” said Judge Wolff, who had been named to the state high court in 1998. “He and I saw eye-to-eye on legal interpretation a lot of the time.”

In 2003, shortly after Teitelman joined Wolff on the court, the judges ruled in a 4-3 decision that sentencing juveniles to death violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court would later take the same position.

“He was considered a liberal. I don’t think it was a term he ever denied,” Judge Wolff said. “But those who disagreed with him, they respected him. They liked him. He was a hard guy not to like.”

'... those who disagreed with him, they respected him. They liked him. He was a hard guy not to like.' - Mike Wolff

Indeed, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia said that even though "he was known for maybe being more on the left side of the spectrum ... that didn’t always indicate the questions that he would ask on a particular case, or even where he would come down.”

In 2013, Anthony Rothert, the legal director at the ACLU of Missouri, argued the case of Kelly Glossip at the Missouri Supreme Court. Glossip’s late partner, Dennis Englehard, had been a state trooper who was killed in the line of duty, and Glossip felt he had a right to Englehard’s survivor benefits.

The majority disagreed. But in a scathing dissenting opinion, Judge Teitelman argued that the majority ignored the fact that state law "employs a definition of spouse that operates to the unique disadvantage of gay men and lesbians, even when, like Corporal Engelhard, they devote their lives to the defense of the same rule of law that relegates them to the status of second-class citizens."

“It was very powerful,” Rothert said of Teitelman’s opinion. “It really saw where the issue of recognition of same-sex relationships would be going in the next couple of years. He had real foresight and was often ahead of the times within the judiciary."

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  two-year stint from 2011-2013 as the chief judge — a role that circulates 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 Tuesday were canceled in Judge Teitelman's honor. But hearings are being held Wednesday.

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.

Judge Richard Teitelman
Credit Courtesy Supreme Court of Missouri
Judge Richard Teitelman was appointed to the state high court by Gov. Bob Holden in 2002.

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.

Judge Teitelman was legally blind, but could see with magnified type. As chief judge in 2013, he delivered the state of the judiciary address to the General Assembly.
Credit Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications | 2013
Judge Teitelman was legally blind, but could see with magnified type. As chief judge in 2013, he delivered the state of the judiciary address to the General Assembly.

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, 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.

Breckenridge issued a statement late Tuesday that made no reference to the looming debate:

“Judge Teitelman had immense compassion for others,” she said. “He dedicated himself, both personally and professionally, to ensuring that every person receives justice in our courts. He was always aware that each of his decisions impacted and changed the lives of real people, and he worked tirelessly to ensure that each decision was fair and just. He delighted in talking to both lawyers and the lay community about the law, and delighted in the success of his fellow lawyers and judges.”

Greitens' statement, issued around noon, also focused on the late judge.

"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," Greitens statement said. "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."

Legal community lauds his service

The Missouri/Southern Illinois office of the Anti-Defamation League in a statement also expressed condolences. Former ADL regional advisory board chair Stuart Berkowitz and a long-time friend of the judge said, “Rick was one-of-a-kind. His uniqueness as an individual, an attorney, an advocate and as a judge was unmatched.”

Karen Aroesty, ADL regional director, first met the judge when he was executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in the 1990s. She called him "a special light for the Jewish community. His years of community advocacy were infused with the spirit of justice for all, especially those most vulnerable. His commitment to the highest level of jurisprudence is a model for all who practice law, and he did love being a judge.”

Harvey Tettlebaum, managing partner of the law firm Husch Blackwell in Jefferson City and a member of the ADL regional advisory board, said, “Judge Teitelman brought a diversity to the Supreme Court as the first judge of the Jewish faith and as one legally blind; this permitted him a unique perspective that the Court had not previously experienced in its history. We truly mourn his passing.”

Missouri Bar President Dana Tippin Cutler said, "On behalf of the officers and members of The Missouri Bar, we offer our most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Supreme Court of Missouri Judge Richard Teitelman.

"We join with the court in recognizing his 18 years of service to the people of Missouri as an appellate judge and his career-long dedication to making sure all Missourians, regardless of their income, have equal access to justice in Missouri.”

Teitelman also served a two-year term as Chief Justice from 2011 to 2013.  He began his 2013 State of the Judiciary Address with a moment of silence to mark the passing of St. Louis Cardinals' great Stan Musial, then went on to praise the success of Missouri's drug court system.

Service set for Thursday

The high court announced that a memorial service for Judge Teitelman is set for 2 p.m. Thursday at Graham Memorial Chapel on the Washington University campus. Arrangements are under the direction of Berger Memorial Chapel, 9430 Olive Boulevard.

Teitelman's 2013 State of the Judiciary Address to the Mo. General Assembly, 1-23-2013

 Marshall Griffin contributed to this article.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.