Missouri Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Teitelman, an affable jurist and advocate for the poor who was the state’s first legally blind appellate judge, has died. He was 69.
Supreme Court spokeswoman Beth Riggert announced Teitelman’s death on Tuesday, shortly before the court was to hear arguments on several cases, which were canceled. Riggert provided no details, saying the court had just been made aware of Teitelman’s death.
Teitelman had served on the court since March 2002, and was chief justice from July 2011 through June 2013. He previously served four years on the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District and spent nearly two decades at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents obtain legal services.
Teitelman had been in poor health for some time, dealing with diabetes and pulmonary and heart problems, said Michael Wolff, a longtime friend and former Supreme Court colleague who is now dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law.
As an attorney and then a judge, Teitelman always looked out for the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. When the seven-member high court deliberated cases behind closed quarters, Teitelman often would implore colleagues to “look for the justice in the case,” Wolff said.
“For a guy who was legally blind, he could see better than almost any judge that I could ever imagine in terms of what is the impact of what we are doing, how does this effect people who are powerless,” Wolff said.
Former Gov. Bob Holden described Teitelman as a “groundbreaking appointment” when he named him to the high court. Teitelman also was the first Jewish member of the state Supreme Court.
Holden on Tuesday recalled Teitelman as a “very gracious, caring, thoughtful, intelligent individual.” He said Teitelman helped reshape the court to better reflect society’s diversity.
Though Missouri appeals judges don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, Teitelman typically aligned along liberal lines. His addition gave the court a majority of Democratic-appointed judges for the first time in 30 years.
In one ruling that highlighted his influence and particularly frustrated Republicans, Teitelman wrote the 2012 majority opinion in a 4-3 decision that struck down a law limiting how much money people could be awarded in medical malpractice cases. He wrote that it violated the common law right to a jury trial that had been embedded in the Missouri Constitution since 1820.
Under Missouri’s nonpartisan court plan, a special panel will screen applicants for Teitelman’s replacement and recommend three nominees to the governor, who then makes an appointment. That appointment could fall to Gov.-elect Eric Greitens, a Republican, who is to take over for term-limited Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon on Jan. 9.
Unlike at the federal level, Missouri Supreme Court appointees are not subject to Senate confirmation. Instead they later face an up-or-down retention vote during a general election. Teitelman had just been retained for another 12-year term this November, though he couldn’t have fully served it because Missouri law requires judges to retire at age 70.
Teitelman had been visually impaired since birth — able only to see shapes and movements. He used a magnifying glass to read and dictated his court opinions to a clerk.
He typically began court sessions by meandering through the courtroom, shaking hands with attorneys and briefly chatting with guests before rejoining the other judges to formally enter the chamber for arguments. It was a ritual that was both affable and practical, allowing him to meet those he could not see from the bench.
Teitelman said at the time of his appointment that he hoped to serve as an example for others with disabilities, especially blind children.
“When I talk to them, I can see the kids feel they have hope … that someone in the same situation as they are can accomplish things,” Teitelman said in 2002.
Teitelman received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Before joining the high court, Teitelman edited two books for The Missouri Bar: the state’s first handbook of consumer law, and a guide for lawyers serving the disabled, elderly and poor.