ST. LOUIS — There are adjectives that are used time and again when colleagues speak of Judge Robin Ransom.
They talk of her calming nature, how courteous she is and how she’s compassionate.
These attributes and her broad legal experience, they say, will serve her well as Missouri’s newest Supreme Court justice — a St. Louis native who broke racial and gender lines last week by becoming the first Black woman to ascend to the state’s high court.
“While I may be the first African American woman to be part of this court, I’d also like to say that I have never lived by a label or by any identity that anyone’s tried to put upon me,” she said last week in accepting Gov. Mike Parson’s appointment. “When I look in the mirror, I’ve always been Robin, and I’ve always lived my life to be kind to everyone and to be the best person that I can be.”
With Ransom’s appointment, Missouri will join 21 other states with a woman of color on its supreme court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based nonpartisan law and policy group. White men fill more than half of all state supreme court seats nationwide compared to 7% held by women of color. Twenty-two states have no minority high court justices while 12 states have just one female justice.
Ransom, 54, the daughter of a St. Louis firefighter who died in 2007, has served the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis since 2019 and previously had been a St. Louis circuit judge since 2008. Her colleagues in 2018 elected her the 22nd Circuit’s first Black female presiding judge, a role she held only briefly until she won an appointment to the appeals court.
In her application to the high court, Ransom credited her father with encouraging her long ago to seize any opportunity to get a job at the juvenile court in St. Louis, where he was a social worker after leaving the fire department.
“Little did I know at the time that I would work there in the capacity of a judicial officer,” Ransom wrote.
Her six years there as the St. Louis Family Court commissioner followed a decade of work as a lawyer in St. Louis County’s family court, and for the offices of the prosecuting attorney and public defender.
The Missouri Plan
In picking Ransom for the seat vacated in March by the retiring Judge Laura Denvir Stith, Parson said last week that he was confident Ransom will be “a fair enforcer of the law” whose diverse legal career and north St. Louis upbringing made her the best candidate for the job.
“I know there’s a lot of history being made, but at the end of the day, it’s the hard work she’s done as she went through the system,” Parson said.
Unlike the federal government, Missouri’s system for selecting judges does not lie solely in the hands of the chief executive and the Senate.
Rather, in 1940, the state became the first to adopt what is now called the “Missouri Plan” for selecting judges.
The process for filling a vacancy begins with a nonpartisan commission that reviews candidates for state judgeships, creating a list of potential nominees based on merit.
The governor fills vacancies on the bench by choosing from this list. The Senate plays no role in confirming the nominee because the pick has already been vetted by the nonpartisan commission.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper III, the head of the commission, signaled it wasn’t an easy lift. The panel spent more than eight hours interviewing 25 candidates. The members then spent four hours deliberating on the finalists and had to conduct nine rounds of balloting to sign off on the three names sent to Parson.
Along with Ransom, others in the running included Don Burrell, 61, who is a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, in Springfield; and William Corrigan, 63, who is a circuit judge in the 21st Judicial Circuit in Clayton.
Parson made his decision quickly.
Although he had 60 days to select a judge from the three offered, he announced Ransom as judge just one working day after Draper had announced the finalists.
The governor, who was making his first pick for the court, said there was no need to draw out the process.
He chose Ransom, he said, largely because he was familiar with her work from when he picked her for the appeals court position two years ago.
“There was no need to linger on this,” Parson said. “Her professional career stands on its own merits.”
Political consultant James Harris, an adviser to Parson, said the speed with which the governor made the decision shows that he “felt really comfortable with her” after he met with Ransom in 2019 when he appointed her to the appeals court.
“I don’t think there was politics involved,” Harris said.
The chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus said the group was pleased to see a Black woman on the high court. But she said it took too long to occur.
“Although this is a historic day, the fact that it took two centuries to happen highlights the continued need to address inequities in all aspects of Missouri’s judicial system,” said Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City.
The state’s system for selecting judges, however, has detractors in the Legislature.
Some Republican lawmakers say trial attorneys have too much influence over the process, resulting in judges who are more inclined to rule against businesses.
Under legislation filed by Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, Missouri would jettison its nonpartisan system and give the governor the ability to pick judges, with the Senate signing off on the selection.
A hearing on the proposal was held in April. The lone witness testifying in favor of Brattin’s legislation was Jeremy Cady, a lobbyist representing Americans for Prosperity.
Americans for Prosperity is a Virginia-based conservative political advocacy organization founded by Charles and David Koch.
Those testifying against the proposal were a cross-section of the state’s legal community, including the Missouri Bar Association, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The measure did not advance beyond the committee hearing before the Legislature adjourned May 14.
Brattin said last week he plans to continue pushing for a revamp of the system, saying unelected attorneys should not be choosing judges.
“My bill would mirror the federal model. I think that would be a good move for the state,” Brattin said.
‘A calming effect’
Ransom declined to speak with the Post-Dispatch about her rise in the judiciary, but her colleagues told the newspaper that her appointment as the state’s first Black Supreme Court judge shouldn’t overshadow her diverse legal career. Still, they noted that she likely will bring a unique perspective to the bench amid a nationwide racial justice movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
St. Louis University law professor Patricia Harrison, a friend of Ransom’s, said the St. Louis community and country are “realizing that we need to have African American people in leadership roles in our government, in our judiciary. They need to be an important presence because their work is just as valuable, if not more valuable in this current climate, for our children to have role models such as her for our entire community.”
Steve Harmon, president of the Mound City Bar Association, said he wasn’t surprised Ransom got the job based on her qualifications, but sees the appointment as part of Parson’s efforts to make inroads with Black constituents and political groups in Missouri. Harmon said it’s “thrilling” to have a second African American serve the high court — the other being Chief Justice Draper, who was appointed in 2011.
“African American women are making strides all over the place from the mayor’s office to Congress, now to the Supreme Court,” Harmon said. “Her background, it speaks for itself. It’s going to be very interesting to watch her excel and I don’t think that this is going to be the last we’ve heard of her.”
SLU law professor John Ammann said the timing is key for Ransom to join the Missouri Supreme Court, as it could lead to a broader array of cases focused on policing and social justice.
“I would love to see the court take additional cases and deal with some of these society issues,” he said. “She’s in a unique position to cause the court, maybe, to expand the number and types of cases.”
Mike Wolff, a former Supreme Court chief justice, said he thinks Ransom will help the high court by relying on her decades of trial and family court experience where she decided difficult cases that often determined the fate of children.
“I think she truly understands how cases are tried,” Wolff said. “Having at least 10 years as a staff attorney and commissioner on the family court, I think it speaks to a real sense of humanity. That shows some heart.”
Jerry Hunter, a lawyer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in St. Louis, called Ransom’s appointment “extremely significant” in 2021. He described Ransom as “a steady hand” who he believes will decide cases based soundly on facts and the law.
“She’s worked at every level of the judiciary whereas some individuals were appointed without that very broad-base experience,” Hunter said. “You cannot pigeon-hole her to assume she’s going to come out one way or another on a case.”
Hunter described Ransom as private and modest to such an extent that members of her own bowling team don’t know she’s a judge.
“I call her ‘judge’ all the time but she does not wear that on her sleeve,” Hunter said.
Ransom has been bowling competitively for decades, a passion she has said that began with her father signing her up for a league at age 11.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison, who bowls with her at the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis’ annual tournament, said Ransom helped their team win more than once. In March, she bowled a perfect game.
“She’s the real deal on the bowling lanes,” Burlison said.
Missouri is “really blessed” to have her on the high court because she’s thoughtful and a good listener, he said.
“She’s a calming effect on a contentious society right now,” Burlison said. “With her abilities and her background, we’re all going to benefit.”
Among the last cases Ransom presided over with the St. Louis Family Court were November 2018 certification hearings for a 15- and 16-year-old charged with fatally shooting retired St. Louis police Sgt. Ralph Harper a month earlier in the city’s Tower Grove South neighborhood. After hearing testimony, Ransom set down her glasses and wiped tears from her eyes.
“I have a son who is 18,” Ransom said at the time. “Most of the kids that come through here remind me of my kid, and I can’t imagine being in the position of either family involved in something like this, the family of the juvenile or the victim’s family. It’s really tough to preside over these kids who have their whole lives in front of them. The community is suffering because of this.
“We know that kids make impulsive decisions,” she said. “It just seems like today, it’s ramped up. It used to be that the main crime was car theft, and now we have very heinous offenses, and I just don’t know how to fix it.”