On Nov. 7, 2000, Missourians elected incumbent Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who had died in a plane crash three weeks earlier. He defeated his Republican rival, John Ashcroft, for a U.S. Senate seat.
Some cried foul. The St. Louis circuit attorney called in the FBI to investigate allegations of voter fraud.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Calvin had approved many of the disputed ballots. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that some of the voters’ affidavits he had approved were "woefully incomplete," but not fraudulent. Many, including the secretary of state, backed Judge Calvin’s call; he had built a solid reputation for doing the right thing.
“He loved cowboys (because) he liked wearing the white hat,” said Deirdre Gallagher, a longtime friend and former colleague at Spencer Fane Britt & Browne. “He had a very strong sense of fairness.”
Judge Calvin, who had lived in Lafayette Square for nearly 20 years, died Saturday, Nov. 29, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital from complications following a recent surgery, said his daughter, Patrice Willis, of St. Louis. He was 63.
Services will be Saturday, Dec. 6 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in St. Louis where he served as senior warden of the Vestry.
Judge Calvin had played a pivotal role in an earlier case involving voting – and a noted St. Louis civil rights activist who had the backing of a monsignor. In 1983, Ivory Perry was tried on a charge of absentee-vote fraud, a crime that could have garnered him a prison sentence and a hefty fine. Judge Calvin acquitted him of all charges.
During 30 years on the bench, including 20 as a circuit judge for the 22nd Judicial Circuit of St. Louis, many defendants before Judge Calvin did not fare nearly as well as Perry, but few held a grudge.
Recently, as part of her job working with previously incarcerated veterans, his daughter was interviewing a man who had served time for robbery. She got a momentarily awkward surprise: her father had meted out the man’s 12-year sentence.
“The next thing out of this guy’s mouth was ‘but you know, he was a good guy,’” Willis laughed. She didn’t let on that he was her father.
Judge Calvin began his judicial career as an attorney with a law firm that included renowned civil rights attorney, Frankie Muse Freeman.
“He was very efficient,” Freeman recalled. “We worked well together, and I was especially proud when he became a judge.”
He spent just three years in private practice before being elected an associate circuit judge in 1979. He was 28. He became a circuit judge in 1988 and served until 2008. From 1999 to 2000, he also served as a presiding judge.
Judge Calvin’s cases ranged from murders that carried the death penalty to multi-million-dollar liability cases. Sometimes he lamented the constraints of the law. A man who murdered his wife in 1992 was found innocent by reason of insanity.
“Now, the doctors say he's all right,” Judge Calvin told the Post-Dispatch in 1996. “Under current law, I might have to order his complete release sometime in the near future. That isn't right.”
Despite Judge Calvin’s 1996 New Year’s resolution and his best efforts to “lead a movement in Missouri to change the law so that a defendant can be found guilty and insane,” the law remained unchanged.
After retiring as a judge six years ago, he joined Spencer Fane Britt & Browne’s dispute resolution division. Frank Neuner, the firm’s St. Louis office managing partner, called his colleague “one of the most decent men I’ve ever encountered.”
“You could have a high-stakes criminal case (and) he had a way of bringing down the emotions and sniping between lawyers,” Neuner said.
Gallagher called his rapport with criminals and the judiciary “a gift.”
“He wasn’t a crusader,”she said. “He just didn’t believe in smashing an ant with a brick.”
Michael Byron Calvin was born Feb. 16, 1951, in Nashville, Tenn., the oldest of Lincoln Byron Calvin Sr. and Thelma Vashti Satterwhite’s three children. His father was a pediatric psychiatrist and his mother was a special education teacher. The family moved to St. Louis when he was 2, and he grew up on the city’s north side near Natural Bridge Road and Kingshighway.
He graduated from Beaumont High School in 1968, and throughout the years, he volunteered with the school’s truancy program. In 1972, he graduated from Monmouth College in Illinois with a Bachelor of Arts in history and government. He earned his law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1975.
Judge Calvin received the Mound City Bar Association Distinguished Legal Service Award and was honored by the National College of State Judiciary and the Missouri Judicial College. He was assigned to the Supreme Court of Missouri three times and served as the attorney for the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners for three years.
One of the inveterate chess player’s best moves came when he met Vanessa Gardner at one of his favorite places: a golf course. She was grateful when he offered to advise her about a recent speeding ticket. Not coincidentally, the information she shared also enabled him to contact her later for a date. They were married in 1987.
In addition to his wife and daughter, the man who after 5 p.m. insisted upon being called just plain ‘Mike’ (that’s ‘Uncle Mike’ for family) is survived by two sons, Michael (Leila) Calvin and Justin Calvin, both of Florissant; a brother, Lincoln (Karynn) Calvin and a sister Robin (Kyle) Rutlin, both of St. Louis.
Judge Calvin’s services will be Saturday, December 6, 2014, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 5010 Terry Avenue, in St. Louis. Visitation will be from 11 a.m. with the funeral immediately following at 1 p.m.
Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.