© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues

Mike Wolff established a progressive record

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2010 - Mike Wolff, who is retiring from the Missouri Supreme Court next summer, is not your stereotypical judge.

He is a former journalist who writes well and in language people can understand. He is an old-fashioned story teller with an infectious belly laugh. He is a tall man with a casual personality and a slightly disheveled appearance that doesn't appear to have benefited from Brooks Brothers. And he's outspoken, not afraid to go out on a limb in advocating shorter sentences for convicts less likely to reoffend.

In his 13 years on the court, Wolff has played an important role in decisions that opened the state courts to jury trials in employment discrimination cases, ended the juvenile death penalty, struck down the state's voter I.D. requirement and tried to make sense of the mess involving the state's public defenders. He also helped judges get a pay raise.

Wolff will be 66 when he leaves the bench next summer. That puts him just short of the mandatory retirement age of 70. He would have been up for retention in the 2012 election, but friends say the election had nothing to do with his decision to retire and return to full-time teaching at Saint Louis University Law School.

Michael A. Wolff was born April 1, 1945, in La Crosse, Wisc., and went to Catholic schools in Rochester, Minn. At Dartmouth College, he was editor-in-chief and chairman of the board of The Dartmouth, the student daily newspaper. He worked his way through the University of Minnesota Law School as a reporter and copy editor for The Minneapolis Star.

After clerking for a federal judge, he served as director of Black Hills Legal Services in Rapid City, S.D., before joining the Saint Louis University faculty in 1975.

In 1992, Wolff lost a race for state attorney general to now Gov. Jay Nixon, who will name Wolff's replacement. Although both are Democrats, Nixon's legal record is considerably more conservative, so Wolff's replacement could shift the court further to the right.

The judges agree with each other on most cases, but in some criminal cases they tend to divide 4-3, with Wolff among the three. An analysis by Missouri Lawyers Weekly found that Wolff had been in the majority about 82 percent of the time from 2002-07, but 69 percent of the time in the past three years.

Wolff helped Mel Carnahan win election as governor in 1992 and went on to serve as his general counsel and then special counsel. In the latter job, he was one of the key players in reaching a compromise that continued the St. Louis-St. Louis County school desegregation plan, set up charter schools and opened the way for a special board to take over the St. Louis Public Schools. That compromise continues to have an impact as the city-county desegregation program remains in place, charter schools have grown and an appointive board runs the St. Louis schools.

Carnahan named Wolff to the Supreme Court in 1998. Wolff's most important opinion - State ex rel. Diehl v. O'Malley in 2003 - granted victims of employment discrimination the right to a jury trial in Missouri state court. Several state appeals courts had concluded that the Missouri Human Rights Act did not provide for a jury trial. Wolff wrote a long historical analysis of the importance of jury trials around the time that Missouri became a state. The analysis persuaded the rest of the judges on the state high court.

As a result of the decision, many job discrimination cases moved out of the federal courts and into the state courts. In the federal courts, many of the cases were thrown out before trial.

Wolff also was in the 4-3 majority that threw out the death penalty for juveniles in 2003. The court stopped the execution of Christopher Simmons who was 17 when he murdered Shirley Crook of Fenton by throwing her off a bridge and into the Meramec River while she was tied up. The court concluded that executing a juvenile was cruel and unusual punishment.

The state Supreme Court was ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue, but the high court eventually agreed and ruled all executions of juveniles unconstitutional.

When Wolff was chief justice, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Missouri's voter I.D. requirements violated the state constitution. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld voter I.D. requirements in Indiana, Missouri's decision stood because it was based on the state constitution.

Wolff has long been a leader on sentencing reform, serving as chairman of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission. The sentencing commission received attention recently when Missouri became the first state in which sentencing judges are informed about the costs of incarcerating a defendant. Another aspect of sentencing in Missouri that got less attention but that may be more important is that judges also receive an assessment of how likely it is for the suspect to reoffend.

In 2008, Wolff joined with the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court in calling for Barack Obama to take steps toward sentencing reform nationwide when he became president. Wolff's candor was apparent in the letter, which read: "We use prisons as addicts use drugs. They don't do what the public expects them to do, so we use them even more, with the result that we need more because prison makes many inmates worse when they return to their communities."

The judges wrote that the "archaic" sentencing policies have resulted in a "disproportionately large share of minorities" in prison even as a disproportionately large share of minorities are victims of crimes.

Wolff's humor sometimes makes it into his opinions as it did in a 2002 case involving a Missouri man accused of having abandoned a corpse. Wolff went on for several paragraphs about the similarities to a scene from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," where Huck and Jim come upon a corpse and leave it behind. Wolff speculated that Huck and Jim could have been charged with Class D felonies in 21st century Missouri.

Wolff lives with his wife Patricia, a pediatrician, in Clayton, although the two spend a lot of time on the road, Judge Wolff commuting to Jefferson City and Dr. Wolff to Haiti where she directs Meds and Food for Kids, a malnutrition program.

Their son Andrew is a surgeon in Washington, D.C., and Benjamin is a lawyer with the Bronx Defenders.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.