He was a ‘mensch’ on the bench, now retired county judge celebrates 100th birthday

Judge+Arthur+Litz+at+his+home+recently.+He+turns+100+on+Jan.+7th

Judge Arthur Litz at his home recently. He turns 100 on Jan. 7th

By Ellen Harris , Special to the Jewish Light

“Pull in the garage so you don’t get wet in the rain,” retired St. Louis County Judge Arthur Litz writes in an email. At the appointed time, he stands there in his signature bow tie and jacket. He opens the door to his immaculately kept home in Olivette, where he lives alone.

Sitting on a hardback chair, he reminisces with total recall. No surprise there. In his 90s, the judge still was driving around Missouri hearing arbitration and mediation cases. And he held a class of Washington University students spellbound for two hours speaking in detail without notes.

“This is a man you don’t play Trivial Pursuit against,” says his son, Howard Litz.

After his 100th birthday Jan. 9, which will be celebrated with a party, Judge Litz will continue his third career in law. For 56 years, he’s been a writer, reviewing books for the St. Louis Bar Journal.

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For fun, he needlepoints pictures, a hobby he picked up in his 80s.

Judge Litz’s needlepoint of the tree of life.

Several pieces of his handiwork hang near his wall of photographs. These include his class reunion photographs from Washington University, Class of ’44, and from Harvard Law School, Class of ’47. He and his roommate are the only ones left.

“I don’t have a lot of peer pressure these days,” Litz says.

In a front-page story in July, Missouri Lawyers Weekly proclaimed Litz the “Oldest Living Missouri Judge.”

“How old do you feel?”

“Seventy,” Litz answered.

Until the pandemic, he worked out in a gym twice a week. He looks like he did 30 years ago, when state law required him to retire.

Litz was appointed to the bench in 1975 by then-Gov. Kit Bond; prior to that he had a general practice for 28 years, which  included civil, criminal, family, estate and trust cases.

“I wanted to be of service to the state and the community,” Litz says, referring to his appointment as a judge. “I’d always looked up to and admired judges like Noah Weinstein, who became a mentor. I learned a lot about people sitting on the bench. I enjoyed being with them and solving their problems within the law. I was like an umpire in a ball game.”

One early ruling was unusual for the time.

“A young couple had nothing but a beautiful 3-year-old girl,” Litz says. “The mother, a convicted prostitute, and the father, a convicted drug dealer, fought over custody. I could have given the child to foster care. But the case haunted me. A week later, I recalled the mother’s testimony. She said she got along well with her mother-in-law, who often babysat. So, I awarded the grandmother custody of the toddler.”

The judge was ahead of his time in other ways. In 1975, only 6.6% of American lawyers were women. Fewer were trial lawyers. Only a handful tried cases in local courts.

“Unlike the other judges who didn’t want us there and made that very clear, Judge Litz was always encouraging and treated us equally to men,” said Pat Simons, a former female litigator who went on to establish Ready Readers.

Litz became known for helping all young lawyers, says Lawrence Mooney, retired from the Missouri Court of Appeals-Eastern District.

“He was the smartest circuit judge on the bench, yet very unassuming,” Mooney says.

U.S. District Judge John A. Ross, who then was an assistant county prosecutor, recalls Litz as “lighthearted, which eased the tension between lawyers while still maintaining judicial decorum. All of the judges, lawyers and litigants respected him.”

Litz once had to referee his own brethren.

“In the 1980s, there were factions among the county judges with a lot of fighting, which caused the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene,” Ross says. “Through all of that, Judge Litz was a stabilizing force and part of the solution.”

What keeps Litz going is his sense of purpose. He developed that after he was rejected for service during World War II.

“The first artillery shell to go off, you’ll be totally deaf,” he recalls an otolaryngologist telling him. “Stay in college and make something of yourself.”

The judge went home and wept. He continued in college and graduate school, taking every history course Washington University offered before starting Harvard Law School.

Upon graduation, the State Department recruited the young lawyer to work on the Nuremberg war crimes trials after WWII. His mother became hysterical; the Holocaust had wiped out her family in Eastern Europe.

“You go there, the Germans will kill you,” she wept.

Litz reluctantly turned down the historic assignment.

With his passion for history, Litz founded the St. Louis County Historical Society, sat on the County Historic Buildings Commission and served as president of the County Law Library.

For 20 years, Litz and his wife, Adele, who died last spring, taught Sunday School at Temple Emanuel.

Judge Arthur Litz and his late wife Adele on their wedding day

“We developed a program,” Litz says, “where we asked the kids, ‘Who would you like to talk to?’ They chose Dr. Jonas Salk (who developed one of the first polio vaccines), and we interviewed him by phone.”

The Litzes would have been married 70 years this year. Both came from New York. The judge’s family moved here when he was 16. Adele Fern Ravitz visited a girlfriend in St. Louis, Litz’s sister-in-law.

“We met in February, became engaged in April, and married in June,” Judge Litz says.

Their family includes sons Howard Litz, who is retired and lives in K’Far Saba, Israel, and Robert Litz, a lawyer here, and daughter Gwen Litz, who raises Australian shepherds in Minneapolis. The family includes three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Each year, Litz travels to Israel by himself to visit Howard and his family.

Sixty-nine years of matrimony is a something of a milestone. So is the judge’s officiating at more than 700 marriages.

Litz recommends to newlyweds, “Keep the flame going. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Be a good companion as well as a lover and a friend. Don’t lose your sense of humor.”

His wit came in handy when he served on a committee of judges and prosecutors who spent four years in the late 1970s rewriting the Missouri criminal code.

“We eliminated the crime of bestiality because no one had ever been prosecuted for it. Years later, one state legislator pitched a fit after a man was found in the act. She wanted a penalty,” recalls retired Cole County Circuit Judge Byron L. Kinder. “I called and told Art.”

Judge Litz’s response: “Wouldn’t she think getting caught would be punishment enough?”