Missouri Supreme Court Justice Dies

Richard B. Teitelman, Missouri's first legally blind Supreme Court judge, has died.

By Kurt Erickson

Richard B. Teitelman, Missouri's first legally blind Supreme Court judge, has died.

Judge Teitelman, known as "Rick," began his service on the state's high court in March 2002 and served as its chief justice from July 2011 through June 2013.

He was 69. Details of his death were not immediately available, but his longtime colleague and friend, former Supreme Court Justice Michael Wolff, said Teitelman had been ailing for several years.

"He's had some serious health problems," said Wolff, who is dean of the St. Louis University Law School.

In honor of Teitelman, the court canceled oral arguments scheduled for Tuesday, but will hear arguments as scheduled on Wednesday.

"It is with great sadness that the Supreme Court of Missouri acknowledges the passing of its beloved colleague," the court said in a statement issued Tuesday morning.

Teitelman -- the first Jewish judge to serve on the state's high court -- was born in Philadelphia. At a Missouri Bar Association event earlier this year, Teitelman said his mother had wanted him to become a doctor.

At age 13, however, he was declared legally blind. He graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 1969 with a degree in math and moved to Missouri where he attended law school at Washington University.

He worked at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in St. Louis for nearly a quarter-century before being appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals in 1998. He was elevated to the state Supreme Court by former Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, in 2002.

On Tuesday, Dana Tippin Cutler, president of the Missouri Bar, offered condolences to Teitelman's family and friends.

"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," Tippin Cutler noted in a statement.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty said the court benefited from Teitelman's dedication to equal justice for all.

"During his decades representing poor clients as a legal aid attorney and later as a jurist, Judge Richard Teitelman's commitment to protecting the less fortunate from injustice was unwavering," McCann Beatty said.

Thomas G. Glick, president of the board of directors of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri offered praise for Teitelman.

"He gave voice to those without representation and was tireless in his work to protect the vulnerable," Glick said.

Selection process

Teitelman's death sets up a process that likely will give Gov.-elect Eric Greitens, a Republican, the opportunity to select a replacement for the seven-member high court.

The selection of Supreme Court judges is governed by Missouri's nonpartisan court plan. Under that process, a committee headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge will set out a schedule for attorneys to apply for the position. That panel interviews the applicants and submits three names to the governor, who has 60 days to choose a finalist.

Typically, however, the application, interview and selection process takes longer than the 41 days left in Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's term.

The selection committee comprises the chief justice, three attorneys chosen by their fellow lawyers and three Missouri residents appointed by the governor. Of the citizen members, the term of Cheryl Darrough of Columbia ends Dec. 31, giving Nixon the ability to keep his fingerprints on the panel before he leaves on Jan. 9.

In a statement, Nixon said, "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."

During the recent election, Greitens signaled that he wants to alter the state's court plan, which is viewed as a national model for removing partisanship from the judiciary.

"Eric is opposed to our current system of judicial selection that gives trial lawyers too much control over the appointment of the very judges they argue their cases in front of," Greitens policy director Will Scharf said in October.

'Passionate public service'

In a statement issued Tuesday, Greitens said Teitelman's "life serves as a reminder to every Missourian that nothing should stand in the way of passionate public service."

Teitelman was known for his humor and kindness.

After a speech to the Legislature in 2012, the Missouri Bar served members of the House and Senate a lunch featuring knishes -- a meat or potato-filled dumpling that is a staple of Jewish cooking.

Teitelman said his vision problem stemmed from a congenital anomaly of the optic nerve. He could read large type, but he did not drive.

He never described himself as handicapped or disabled.

Rather, he said in 2007, "It's a challenge. These challenges are things that are character building."

He used a magnifying glass to read and relied on his law clerks for other reading duties.

Longtime friend Stuart Berkowitz, former regional advisory board chairman for the Missouri-Southern Illinois office of the Anti-Defamation League, called Teitelman "one-of-a-kind."

"His uniqueness as an individual, an attorney, an advocate and as a judge was unmatched," Berkowitz said.

On days when the court was hearing arguments, Teitelman would often walk through the courtroom before proceedings began to shake hands and chat with people in the audience.

"It was just so disarming. In part, he really made human connections extraordinarily well," Wolff said. "He was one of the most extraordinary people I've ever known."

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Graham Memorial Chapel on the campus of Washington University.

Among the survivors is his brother, Gilbert E. Teitelman of Philadelphia. He was preceded in death by his parents, Nathan and May, and his brother Louis.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, 4232 Lindell Boulevard.

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.