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Supreme Court justice pushes back against Missouri GOP's war on trial lawyers

Tim Bommel|Mo. House Communications

Missouri's Supreme Court chief justice wants the Republican-controlled state legislature to proceed carefully as it seeks to curb the number of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

Patricia Breckenridge delivered the annual State of the Judiciary Address Tuesday to lawmakers and to governor Eric Greitens.

She downplayed claims that St. Louis, and the rest of Missouri to a lesser degree, is a "judicial hellhole," as famously stated by Greitens in his State of the State Address last week. She says less than one percent of all cases in Missouri involve wrongful death or personal injury claims.

"About 5 percent of civil cases and fewer than one percent of all cases involve tort claims like wrongful death or personal injury," Breckenridge said. "I understand Governor Greitens and some of you in the General Assembly have called for changes in the law governing certain types of cases; do not view these calls for action as a condemnation of our judicial system."

She added that the bulk of Missouri's civil lawsuits involve "small claims, domestic relations, landlord-tenant matters, and disputes of less than $25,000."

"Our citizens can be proud of our court(s), where they go to resolve their disputes peaceably, and where their constitutional rights are protected," she said. "Day in and day out, in courtrooms in your communities, hundreds of thousands of cases are adjudicated without fanfare."

Republican leaders are pushing bills that could shrink jury awards in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, and place stricter guidelines on who qualifies as an expert witness.

Despite the difference in positions on changing the law governing some cases, Breckenridge received a warm welcome and a few standing ovations during her address.

She called on lawmakers to give pay raises to state workers, including those who work within the court system.

"Our 3,400 employees serve in your courts and, every year, are asked to do more with less," she said. "I encourage you to visit a local courthouse and meet these dedicated professionals who embrace their responsibility to treat every person fairly and equitably and to resolve disputes according to the law."

She also paid tribute to Missouri Supreme Court judge Richard Teitelman, who died suddenly in November.

"He believed in the goodness of humanity and was a steadfast champion of equal justice. While we may not have always agreed in our legal opinions, we knew no friend more loyal or caring, and we miss him."

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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