Mister Justice Teitelman

Missouri Supreme Court Justice  Richard B. Teitelman (center) with Gerry Ortbals (left) and Tom Lang at the 25th anniversary Justice For All Ball  in 2015. The three founded the annual event, which raised funds for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Photo courtesy LSEM

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Not many people can lay claim to being a “historic figure,” but Missouri Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Teitelman, who died Nov. 29 at the too-young age of 69, indeed made history when he was named to the court in 2002 by then Governor Bob Holden, the very first—and thus far only—Jew named to the state’s high court.

It is ironic that Judge Teitelman—or “just Rick” to his many friends and admirers in the legal profession and throughout the community, died just after Eric Greitens was elected governor of Missouri, the first Jew to hold that high office since Missouri became a state in 1821.

There is always additional pressure on the “first” in any category, whether it was on the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who faced outright anti-Semitic opposition to his nomination on the floor of Congress; Barack Obama, the first African-American president, or Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president by one of our two major American political parties. By any and all standards, Richard Bertram Teitelman served with great distinction, humility and brilliance—and was consistently grateful for his Jewish upbringing and affiliations.

When Teitelman’s appointment was announced in a Page One story in the March 6, 2002 edition of the Jewish Light, the piece I wrote was headlined, “A ‘mensch’ is on the bench; Gov. Bob Holden names Judge Richard Teitelman first Jew on Missouri Supreme Court; lawyer receives praise from legal, Jewish communities for fairness and integrity.”

From that issue forward, whenever I encountered Teitelman, he would always say, “There’s Bob Cohn; he called me the ‘mensch on the bench.’” And indeed Teitelman was the very definition of the Yiddish definition of a mensch, a decent, honorable, compassionate human being.

At a moving memorial service last Friday in Graham Chapel at Washington University, from which Teitelman earned his law degree, the word mensch was frequently used by speakers at the service, where Rabbi Susan Talve, along with Hazzan Howard Shalowitz, officiated and which was attended by a standing room audience of more than a thousand people.

Again and again, speaker after speaker, praised Teitelman’s courage, perseverance and integrity. Not only was he the first Jewish Missouri Supreme Court justice, but was also the first legally blind person to be named to the state’s high court. 

The Philadelphia native came to St. Louis to attend law school at Washington University and never left. He spent 18 years with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, where he was a passionate advocate for providing skilled legal services to the underserved population of Missouri.

In 1988, then Gov. Mel Carnahan named Teitelman to the Missouri Court of Appeals, where he served until Holden named him to the Supreme Court in 2002. Voters retained him in office in 2004 and again in 2016, by wide margins under Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan. He served as the court’s chief judge between 2011 and 2013—also a first for a Jewish person in Missouri.

The memorial service in Teitelman’s honor was as much of a celebration of all aspects of his life as it was mourning for his loss. His casket was accompanied to the front of the chapel by an honor guard of Missouri law enforcement officers. The large audience of attendees fell silent as the solemn procession went by.

Attorney Maury Graham served as master of ceremonies for the funeral, which included not only tributes to Teitelman’s legal brilliance, but also to his human qualities as well. Despite his visual impairment, he was a fan of movies and was an expert on their themes and plot lines. He wore a signature scarf, which was emulated by two of the speakers on the program. 

Gov. Jay Nixon drew the longest applause line when he took note of the fact that such a kind and compassionate person, a Jewish person challenged with blindness and who was a dedicated public servant, both to our state and our legal system. “In this period of extreme political divisiveness, Judge Teitelman was an example of the very finest qualities in public service,” he said.

 Numerous attorneys in Missouri praised Teitelman’s legal skills and significant decisions. Among them is Gary Burger, a trial attorney, who said, “Judge Teitelman was a friend of mine and many and a shining light among lawyers, judges and our community.” Many great things were said of him in print and at his memorial service.

He was a humble but brilliant lawyer and judge who dedicated himself to serving the poor and underprivileged in accessing justice. He was an inspiration to me. One of his most famous decisions was Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, a 2012 ruling that threw out the state’s cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, overturning a 20-year-old case to the contrary. Teitelman was not worried about the politics of the case, but rather the rule of law, enforcing the Seventh Amendment and helping victims of medical malpractice. 

And thus Judge Richard Bertram Teitelman, the true mensch on the bench, has been taken from our midst. But truly his legacy and his memory will always be for a blessing—to the citizens of Missouri, to those who live with physical challenges, and to the Jewish community of which he was a proud member.