The Greitens trial: Judge in charge is no stranger to big cases
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of three stories profiling the main legal figures involved in the trial of Gov. Eric Greitens. A profile of the prosecution ran Tuesday, and a profile of the defense attorneys ran Wednesday.
Nearly 200 St. Louis residents will walk into the Civil Courts building in downtown St. Louis Thursday morning in response to a jury summons for the felony invasion of privacy trial of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.
They'll eventually file into a seventh floor courtroom, where Circuit Judge Rex Burlison will preside, to learn if they will help determine the governor’s guilt.
The governor's case has a little bit of everything — a high-profile defendant, charged with a salacious crime, represented by a high-powered legal defense team. Greitens is accused of taking a semi-nude photo of the woman with whom he had an affair in 2015, then transmitting it so it was accessible by computer.
People who know Burlison call him the perfect judge to hear the case against Greitens.
Jim Carmichael, an attorney at Niedner Law in St. Charles, met Burlison in the late 1970s, when the two were undergraduates at what is now Truman State University, in Kirksville, Missouri.
“Rex is a very interesting and entertaining person,” Carmichael said. “He’s very sharp, he’s very quick-witted.”
The two men went to law school after college — Carmichael at Washington University, Burlison at Saint Louis University — then practiced together for five years afterward.
“Rex is someone that you will not be able to outwork,” Carmichael said. "He’s a good trial attorney. He had a verdict out here for over a million dollars back in the '80s, when a million-dollar verdict was totally unheard of.”
Burlison, 63, spent 20 years in private practice in St. Charles, and served as an alderman in Cottleville for much of that time as well. In March 2000, Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed him an associate circuit judge in St. Charles County.
Burlison was in that post for less than a year when Jay Nixon, then the Democratic attorney general, named him chief counsel of the attorney general’s office in St. Louis. In that role, Carmichael said, Burlison secured a $30 million settlement with three drug companies that were found to have overcharged the state’s Medicaid program for prescription drugs.
“You had three teams of very competent national trial attorneys, and Rex,” Carmichael said. “By the time it was done, while the jury was out, he had clearly done a good enough job that they forked over $30 million to the coffers of the state of Missouri.”
Burlison also worked for Nixon as governor, who would elevate him to the bench in St. Louis in 2011. Burlison's history leaves him open to criticism that he can’t be fair to a Republican governor under investigation, but it’s also a history that’s immensely helpful in a case like this, said Jay Kanzler, a partner at Witzel Kanzler and Dimmit.
“When you have an elected prosecutor bringing a case against an elected governor, politics is part of the equation, and I think Judge Burlison, having been a part of a governor’s administration, is going to understand how those parts work,” Kanzler said.
Winston Calvert has experience trying a politically fraught case in front of Burlison. Calvert, now an attorney at Summers Compton Wells, was the city counselor when then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay married four couples at City Hall in 2014, in violation of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Attorney General Chris Koster sued, and the case ended up in Burlison’s courtroom.
“He was very sensitive to the fact that both the attorney general and the city of St. Louis had their own boxes to check in addition to the legal issues that we had to argue,” Calvert said. “He did a really good job at filtering out what were things that the parties felt like they had to say for reasons other than the legal arguments, and what were the actual legal arguments the parties were making.”
Burlison would later declare the ban unconstitutional, a decision Calvert called bold and courageous.
“We think of it as a foregone conclusion now, but at the time it wasn’t,” Calvert said.
‘Perfect for the case’
The marriage ban case is far from the only high-profile one Burlison has handled in his seven years on the bench in St. Louis. He presided over the equal pay lawsuit filed by former Anheuser-Busch executive Francine Katz, and he was set to hear the retrial of Reginald Clemons before Clemons confessed this year to raping and murdering two sisters on the Chain of Rocks Bridge. He’s also been the judge on several multi-million dollar cases involving claims that talcum powder causes cancer.
“When you handle the mass tort docket, you’re dealing with nationally recognized trial attorneys from big national firms,” Carmichael said. “He’s used to dealing with egos.”
And there will be egos on this case — the governor’s defense team is a who’s-who of St. Louis’ top criminal defense attorneys. One of them, Jim Bennett, represented AB in the Katz case.
“There’s probably not enough room in that courtroom for all of the egos involved,” said Paul D’Agrosa, a former defense attorney who joined the U.S. attorney’s office in January. “But I’ve practiced in front of Judge Burlison, and he will keep them in check and make sure that the business of the court is done in an efficient manner, and that there isn’t a dog and pony show.”
Burlison will probably get a bit of a thrill about being the judge to direct the action in the governor’s trial, Carmichael said. “I think he finds nothing more satisfying, and maybe even the word entertaining, than seeing top trial attorneys do top trial work in front of him.”
Burlison gets it right as a judge, D’Agrosa added.
“As a lawyer you can’t complain if the judge gets it right, even if the judge isn’t ruling in your favor, or your client’s favor,” he said. “I would say he is perfect for this case.”
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann