Diverse judge set to lead Missouri Supreme Court

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Michael Wolff, who has run for state office, taught in law school and been a reporter, gets new job.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Judge Michael Wolff arguably possesses the most diverse professional background on the Missouri Supreme Court.

His job history includes a stint as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, more than 20 years as a law school professor, two runs for statewide political office and serving as a top gubernatorial advisor. He will soon pad that resume a bit when he begins a two-year term as chief justice of Missouri's highest court.

Wolff, 60, will take over as court leader July 1, replacing Chief Justice Ronnie White. The post rotates among the court's seven members.

Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. of Cape Girardeau, who served as chief from 2001 to 2003, said Wolff has proven an excellent jurist and will do well in his new role.

"He has an enormous intellect and is a people-person and a team player," Limbaugh said. "He has a real aptitude not only for legal work but also for our administrative obligations."

That "team player" aspect of Wolff's personality could be one reason why he almost always sides with the majority. In the 326 decisions Wolff has participated in since January 2002, he voted with the majority 96 percent of the time. He dissented on just eight occasions and agreed with the majority in part and dissented in part in another five cases.

Wolff said that record reflects his desire, and that of his colleagues, to work hard to reach consensus in the court's rulings.

"The more you accommodate other people's views, the stronger and more accepted your judicial decisions become," Wolff said.

Appointed by Carnahan

Then-governor Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, appointed Wolff to the high court in August 1998. At that time Republican appointees controlled the court 5-2. Today, Democratic appointees hold the same numerical advantage.

Wolff was Carnahan's chief counsel from 1993 to 1994 and remained a special advisor to the governor after returning to the St. Louis University School of Law, where he first joined the faculty in 1975.

Wolff twice ran for Missouri attorney general. He lost to Republican Bill Webster in the 1988 general election and was bounced in the 1992 Democratic primary by current Attorney General Jay Nixon.

While attending law school, Wolff worked for three years as a reporter for The Minneapolis Star. His newspaper experience, he said, helped him craft a clear and concise writing style in his rulings that avoids legalese and endeavors to explain complex issues in plain terms.

"I think it is easier for non-lawyers to read opinions if you don't use lawyer jargon," Wolff said.

But Wolff also sometimes injects his academic background into his decisions. In a Cape Girardeau County case in which Wolff led a unanimous court in upholding the constitutionality of Missouri's law making corpse abandonment a crime, he drew upon the writings of the classical Greek playwright Sophocles and Missouri's own Mark Twain to colorfully explain the issue.

"That case was certainly unusual," Wolff said, laughing. "It invited some literary comparisons, although I don't do that too terribly often."

Limbaugh said Wolff's bent toward the literary stems from his tenure as a law professor.

"As an appellate judge, you are a teacher in a way," Limbaugh said. "His literary and metaphorical references are designed to hold the attention of the reader."

In one of Wolff's most significant opinions, the court ruled 4-3 that the police tactic of intentionally withholding a Miranda warning from a suspect to more easily secure a confession and then providing the warning after the fact is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed that position, limiting the scope of police interrogations nationally.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle gives Wolff credit for helping to shape legal precedent in the case.

"At the time it was harshly criticized by many, including probably myself, who felt the Missouri Supreme Court was not giving adequate respect to U.S. Supreme Court precedent," Swingle said. "But it turns out Judge Wolff was right. He is a legal scholar, and he proved it with that case."

Another case that had a national impact in which Wolff was part of a 4-3 majority, although he didn't write the opinion, declared the death penalty unconstitutional for murderers who were under age 18 when they committed their crimes. The federal high court in March used that case to abolish the death penalty for juveniles.

That case was just one of several in recent years in which Missouri judges appointed by Democratic governors reversed sentences or convictions in capital cases over the objections of Republican appointees. However, Wolff has voted to affirm in death penalty cases slightly more often than he has reversed, and the bulk of all of those rulings were unanimous.

Wolff has proven to be a stickler for the letter of the law in some cases.

In a 2002 ruling, the court unanimously overturned a man's Missouri conviction for driving with a revoked Iowa driver's license because the poorly written statute said a person was guilty of the crime if his license was revoked under Missouri law.

Wolff wrote that although the Missouri Legislature clearly didn't intend to give drivers with invalid out-of-state licenses a free pass, it nonetheless did so by its wording of the law, and it was up to lawmakers, not the court, to fix the problem. "This court, under the guise of discerning legislative intent, cannot rewrite the statute," Wolff wrote.

In a sharply worded dissent in a 2003 tax case, Wolff criticized the 4-3 majority for allowing companies to shift revenue earned in Missouri to out-of-state shell corporations and avoid paying Missouri taxes, even though state law said "all income derived from sources in this state" is taxable.

"The bottom line, economic reality is simple: These companies earn money in Missouri," Wolff wrote. "They should pay taxes here."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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