Three Missouri appeals court judges have been nominated for a state Supreme Court seat – including one who made history with her appointment only last year, and would again if chosen this time.
Judge Ginger Gooch made the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Southern District the first appellate court in state history to be majority-female with her appointment last November by Gov. Mike Parson. On Tuesday, Gooch’s name was one of three sent to Parson by the Appellate Judicial Commission to succeed the retiring Supreme Court Judge George W. Draper III.
If selected by Parson, Gooch would again make history, turning the Supreme Court majority-female as well. She also would be the first Supreme Court pick from the Southern District in Springfield since 1989.
The other two nominees are judges Judge Michael E. Gardner and Chief Judge Kelly C. Broniec, both currently on the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Eastern District in St. Louis.
Parson will choose among those three, after the seven-member Appellate Judicial Commission interviewed 23 applicants Monday and Tuesday in the Supreme Court chambers in Jefferson City. The interviews, attended by The Heartlander, were open to the public but only in person and were not live-streamed.
The appellate commission is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell, and includes three lawyers and three laymen – two of which represent each of the Southern, Eastern and Western districts.
Gooch told the commission she was hesitant to apply for the seat, since she was put on the Court of Appeals only last year. She said she didn’t want to be chosen as either a token female or token Southern District judge.
But while the self-effacing Gooch said she knew she’d never be the smartest, prettiest or funniest in the crowd, she was No. 1 in her class at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. And lay Commissioner Connie Cierpiot assured Gooch that she’d heard all over the state about “your ability to figure things out.”
Indeed, Gooch did have to acknowledge being dogged in her pursuit of fact and legal dictates, as well as being “super proud” of being appointed by Parson to the Court of Appeals straight from a 22-year law practice at the Husch Blackwell law firm in Springfield – without having first served as a trial judge. Gooch had previously served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Judge Ann Covington.
“The hard issues don’t intimidate me or scare me,” she told the commission. “I welcome them. The harder the issue, the more interesting to me.”
Judge Broniec, on the Eastern District Court of Appeals since 2020 and currently its chief, is the former Democrat prosecuting attorney of Montgomery County, and was an assistant prosecutor in Lincoln and Warren counties. She was appointed associate circuit judge for Montgomery County in 2006, elected to the position that same year, and re-elected in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
Asked by the commission how she’s improved her craft while on the Court of Appeals, Broniec said an appeals court position requires a different approach to opinion writing that demands elevated levels of clarity and brevity – not just for the case at hand, but for posterity, since appeal decisions set precedents for other courts and lawyers to follow.
“That is something I’ve been working on, in terms of writing characteristics and style – making my writing very clear and concise,” she said.
Broniec said appeals court judges must also be deliberate, as briefs, arguments and laws can lead judges to perhaps unexpected outcomes.
“That’s one aspect of appellate work – that you have to be not so quick to think that you know the answer,” she said.
Asked about the need to set aside personal beliefs and feelings, Broniec noted one case in which a litigant was more likable than the other, but legally she had to enter a judgment in favor of the other party.
Judge Gardner – on the Eastern District appeals court since 2020 and chief from July 2022 through June 2023 – also talked of the requirement to rule in favor of an unlikable litigant because of the need to follow the law.
“I think I’ve got a track record of doing that,” he told the commission. “You have to follow the law and you have to put your personal opinions to the side. That’s why we wear black robes as judges. It’s a symbolic way to cover up who you are and where you come from, and you’re just simply performing the duty as a judge.”
Asked about the courts’ image, and the public’s lack of faith in institutions today, Gardner said that’s one of the most important issues today, especially in the judiciary.
“There is unfortunately a growing misconception, I think out there, that the judges have either red robes or blue robes. And that’s just wrong. We follow the law regardless of whatever background we come from,” he said.
Gardner said the judicial system’s reaching out to the public is vital for all judges, and attorneys for that matter – to get out into the community, talk to schools and civic organizations, “and talk about what we do in the court system – talk about the rule of law, what that means, and to explain how a case works its way through the court system and you come about reaching a decision.”
After internships at the Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and the Limbaugh Firm, as well as being a Missouri Supreme Court law clerk for Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., in 2014 Gardner was elected judge of the 32nd Judicial Circuit covering Bollinger, Cape Girardeau and Perry counties.
Another Supreme Court vacancy occurs in October with the retirement of Judge Patricia Breckenridge. Both openings are a result of a mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. This is the first year in over 30 years that multiple Supreme Court judge seats will become available.