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Retirements pile up among 31st Judicial Circuit judges

Replacement process will continue into 2023, officials say

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The retirement announcement made earlier this month by Greene County Circuit Court Judge Michael Cordonnier is the latest in what legal industry officials say is an unprecedented number of judges leaving the bench in the 31st Judicial Circuit. 

Cordonnier, presiding judge of the 31st Judicial Circuit since 2018 and a judge with the circuit since 2008, has set his last day as Jan. 31, 2023. He sent a letter Aug. 7 to Gov. Mike Parson and Missouri Chief Justice Paul Wilson announcing his retirement. That came two days after Greene County Circuit Judge Jason Brown notified Wilson that he planned to exit his position after his current term ends on Dec. 31. 

The announcements from Cordonnier and Brown are in addition to Greene County Circuit Court Judge Calvin Holden, who retired July 31. The remaining circuit judges in the 31st Judicial Circuit are Becky Borthwick, David Jones and Thomas Mountjoy. Jones and Mountjoy will reach mandatory retirement age in June 2023, and Borthwick has applied for a state judgeship.

Crista Hogan, Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association executive director, said the timing of the retirements is “completely coincidental.” Holden was set to turn 70 before his current six-year term ended in 2024. The Missouri Constitution provides a mandatory retirement age of 70 for most state judges. While Hogan disagrees with the term “mandatory,” as judges aren’t forced to leave office, she said those who would choose not to exit forfeit all rights to a pension benefit and annual compensation or salary.

While not at retirement age, Brown and Cordonnier are leaving after more than 30 years combined as judges in Greene County.

“For them to retire is a completely reasonable thing to do,” she said, noting Brown has been a judge for 18 years, followed closely by Cordonnier’s 16 years of service. “We haven’t had very much turnover on our bench for a while.” 

No retirement announcements have been made by Jones and Mountjoy, Hogan said, but she expects those will be forthcoming in the next few months. 

“There’s a potential that the entire circuit bench will turn over in the next 12 months,” she said.

Uncertain impact
The loss of institutional knowledge of the three retiring judges is substantial, said Jason Smith, Springfield office managing partner with Spencer Fane LLP. Combined, they have 60 years of judicial experience.

“I’ve had a lot of cases in front of all of them over the years,” he said, noting his case count among the three judges is well over 100 – at least five of which went to trial. “When you lose that type of experience, that’s certainly something that is going to be missed.”

Brown said business litigation cases undoubtedly will be impacted by the retirements. Spencer Fane works on cases in that area every day.

“In terms of litigation that my office does, I’d say the majority of that would be characterized as business litigation,” he said. “We have a number of attorneys in our office that do business litigation almost exclusively.”

While declining to estimate total business litigation cases per year, he said probably 50% are in Greene County, with the remainder primarily in Christian and Taney counties, or federal court. 

“Until we see who ends up in those positions, it’s difficult to say exactly,” he said, regarding how business litigators will be affected by the retirements. “Certainly, there will be a bit of a transition period.”

Getting new judges up to speed on pending cases as well as scheduling are challenges still to come, Smith said.

“They’re not going to have that experience and knowledge base about the case. That will be one issue,” he said. “There are some unknowns along those lines.”

According to the Greene County circuit clerk’s website, the circuit courts have jurisdiction over civil cases with any cause of action over $25,000, criminal felony cases transferred from the associate court, juvenile cases and domestic cases, and they oversee family, treatment and probate courts. The associate courts have jurisdiction over civil cases with under $25,000 at issue, small claims, traffic tickets, criminal misdemeanors and felonies.

Selection process
Hogan said there’s a strong possibility that some of the six associate circuit judges in the 31st Judicial Circuit will be appointed to one of the circuit judge seats. If so, there will be an associate judge spot to fill.

“It’s a domino effect,” she said. 

In Greene County, voters in 2008 approved the 31st Circuit Judicial Commission to aid in the filling of judicial vacancies in the circuit. The commission comprises five members serving six-year terms: chief judge of the Southern District of the Court of Appeals; two members of The Missouri Bar residing in the 31st Judicial Circuit, elected by local members of the organization; and two citizens who reside in the same judicial circuit and are appointed by the governor. The commission submits three judicial candidates to the governor, who makes the appointment. The commission currently is chaired by Chief Judge Jack Goodman of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, and other members are attorneys Deborah Dodge and Kurt Larson, and citizens Kim Hancock and Fred McQueary.

In late July, the commission began the process of selecting Holden’s replacement by interviewing seven applicants and selecting three nominees for Gov. Mike Parson’s review for up to 60 days, according to a news release. They are Randall Eggert, Jerry A. Harmison Jr. and T. Todd Myers. Eggert is an assistant attorney for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, while Harmison and Myers both are associate circuit judges in the 31st Judicial District. 

Greene County Circuit Court Judge Borthwick is among candidates seeking a spot on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Hogan said. She’s seeking to replace Judge Bill Francis, who retired July 31, after being appointed to the position in 2010. Smith said Borthwick is among at least 17 applicants for the court of appeals vacancy. 

While Hogan hasn’t seen turnover at the judge level so quickly in her lifetime, she’s confident the pool of qualified candidates and competitive process in Greene County should result in outstanding replacements. 

Smith agreed. 

“The quality of the replacement judges, so to speak, is going to be very high,” he said. “I don’t currently have any major concerns about that. But there will be a learning curve.

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