Richard Teitelman, first Jewish justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, dies at 69

Missouri Supreme Court Justice Richard Teitelman addresses participants at Chabad’s Conference on Talmud and Contemporary Law last June. Looking on is Rabbi Yosef Landa, Chabad of Greater St. Louis’ regional director. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Richard Teitelman, who was the first blind and the first Jewish Missouri Supreme Court justice, died Tuesday at his home in the Central West End. He was 69. He had struggled with diabetes and pulmonary issues.

Teitelman had served on the Supreme Court since 2002. Prior to that, he spent four years as a judge with the Missouri Court of Appeals and two decades with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income people. 

The judge was known not only for what he achieved despite being legally blind but also for his liberal ideology, compassion for underprivileged Missouri residents and friendly manner with others in the legal world.

In honor of Teitelman, the court cancelled oral arguments scheduled for Tuesday.

As a Supreme Court Justice, “he would frequently say out loud his approach to each individual case: ‘Look for the justice in the case,’ ” said Michael Wolff, who served on the court with Teitelman and is now the dean of St. Louis University Law School. “He was a brilliant lawyer. He was a great strategic thinker, and he had the biggest heart of any of us in the legal profession.”

Teitelman was named to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court by Gov. Bob Holden.

“I am very, very proud, very humbled at being the first Jewish judge on the Supreme Court in Missouri,” the judge told the St. Louis Jewish Light at the time. “I read incessantly about Jews, especially Jews in St. Louis, and I get my commitment to justice from the Torah.”

In 2004, Teitelman was up for a retention vote and faced unusual opposition from a group called “Missourians Against Liberal Judges,” which charged that he was promoting gay marriage, denying Missourians the right to personal protection, reducing sentences for brutal murderers and driving doctors out of practice, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

“Never mind that Judge Teitelman … is one of the sharpest judges on the Missouri Supreme Court,” the Post Dispatch wrote in an editorial. “Or that he has spent most of his career laboring for equal justice for poor people…Or that he ascended to the bench despite being legally blind and broke the invidious barrier that had kept Jews off the state’s high court.”

Missouri House Rep. Rod Jetton, a Republican who was one of the leaders in the effort to unseat Teitelman, said that he did so because of their divergent views on tort reform. Teitelman retained his position with 62.3 percent of the vote, an unusually low number for a judicial retention vote.

Jetton, who became Missouri House speaker, said that he regrets opposing Teitelman. After Teitelman retained his seat, the two met at an event in Jefferson City. Teitelman then testified on a bill supported by Jetton to use state funding to provide additional screening for young children to detect eye problems.

“He was such a gracious person and reached out to me when he didn’t have to. I’m sure he didn’t think the best of me” after the campaign against him, said Jetton, who served until 2009 and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge.

Jetton was not alone in liking Teitelman despite their ideological differences. 

“Rick was special in that even the people who disagreed with him, he was able to get their admiration,” said U.S. Judge Ronnie White, who served on the Supreme Court of Missouri with Teitelman from 2002 to 2007. 

As executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Teitelman filed a lawsuit, Graham v. Schoemehl, which required the city of St. Louis to provide shelter and services to local homeless residents, according to the organization. That case laid the foundation for the city’s Homeless Services Network, said Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Under Teitelman’s direction, the organization also filed a suit, Weaver v. Reagen, which allowed Medicaid recipients with HIV to gain access to an antiretroviral drug, and established a program to help victims of domestic violence, according to Glazier.

Teitelman was also a founder 26 years ago of the Justice for All Ball, a fundraiser for the legal services organization that became known as the “lawyer’s prom.” It attracted more than 700 people last year at the Chase Park Plaza. 

“He worked tirelessly in the legal community and the community at-large to make sure that poverty law was everybody’s business and everybody’s concern,” said Glazier, who was hired by Teitelman in 1981 and describes him as a mentor.

Teitelman was born Sept. 25, 1947 in Philadelphia. His father, Nathan, was a lawyer and his mother, May, worked in the home. Public school officials wanted to send Teitelman to a school for the blind but his mother “would have none of that,” and began attending school with her son, said Maurice Graham, an attorney and friend. Teitelman received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and then attended the Washington University School of Law. 

Teitelman faced unique challenges in the legal world because of his blindness. In hearing cases on the Supreme Court, whereas other justices could refer to their notes, Teitelman essentially had  to memorize all the material involved in a case, said Richard Bernstein a fellow blind, Jewish Supreme Court justice in Michigan.

“His level of preparation would exceed that of those who could see,” said Bernstein, 43. “Everything takes more work and everything takes more effort and everything takes longer than it does for other judges,”

The two met in 2015 when Bernstein participated in a panel at a Chabad legal symposium in St. Louis. Bernstein started hearing about Teitelman when the judge was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court and said that main reason he came to St. Louis was to meet Teitelman.

“Within the disabled community you tend to know that there are certain people doing things that you get excited about,” said Bernstein. 

Teitelman participated in other Chabad events as well, including for the last five years at a menorah lighting at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. 

“It was a tall menorah and we had to always help to get the candle (lit) because it was hard for him to see,” said Chabad of Greater St. Louis Director Rabbi Yosef Landa. “Whenever he was able to participate in Jewish events, I think he relished the opportunity.”

Teitelman is survived by a brother, Gilbert Teitelman. The funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, at Graham Memorial Chapel on the Washington University campus. Donations can be made to Legal Service of Eastern Missouri, 4232 Forest Park Ave., 63108.