Local courts have seen big changes on the bench in recent months

If it seems that streets around Jackson County courthouses downtown and in Independence have been clogged with moving vans recently, you would be correct.

For an institution rooted in stability, the local courts have undergone a remarkable amount of change in recent months, with several judges retiring and others stepping up as replacements.

According to court administrators, six judges or commissioners in Kansas City and Independence recently have retired or taken the bench. At the same time almost two dozen other lawyers who want to join the circuit court bench are awaiting interviews by a judicial commission, which will make recommendations to the governor to fill one of the recent vacancies.

Perhaps the two highest-profile changes were the recent retirements of Ann Mesle and Michael Manners, both of whom had served on the Jackson County bench for 13 years.

Mesle said in a recent announcement that she will continue her work in civic, educational and charitable activities. She is chair of the Park University Board of Trustees and is on the boards of the Diastole Scholars’ Center, the Child Abuse Prevention Association and the Metropolitan Bar Foundation.

“Judges never retire,” said Mesle, who worked in the downtown courthouse. “We just move our lives in challenging new directions.”

Manners, who twice was voted “Best Circuit Judge in the State” in a statewide poll of attorneys conducted by Missouri Lawyers Weekly, will join the law firm of Langdon and Emison, a prominent plaintiffs’ law firm based in Lexington, Mo.

“Even though I have enjoyed most of my time as judge, I have missed the thrill of being in trial,” Manners said in his retirement announcement. “I look forward to getting back into the arena.”

Missouri’s Appellate Judicial Commission selected Manners four times for judicial openings on the Missouri Supreme Court, though no governor ever appointed him. He served in the Independence courthouse.

Associate Circuit Judge Mary F. Weir officially donned the robe in mid-July, being sworn in by Judge Christine Sill-Rogers, whom she replaced. Sill-Rogers retired from her post in the downown courthouse. Weir served as Sill-Rogers’ law clerk between September 1995 until April 1998.

Associate Circuit Judge Vernon Scoville retired in June, announcing his plans to continue teaching at Park University and to volunteer as a practical nurse. He received a nursing degree in 2004.

In May, the court appointed Susan E. Long to serve as a family court commissioner. That seat was vacated when the governor appointed Commissioner Patrick W. Campbell in March to replace Circuit Judge Charles Atwell, who retired late last year.

But with all the musical chairs, the court, which has slots for 36 judges and commissioners, has only three current openings.

The 16th Circuit Judicial Commission has not yet taken steps to replace Mesle and Scoville.

But 23 lawyers have applied to replace Manners. The group is a near-even split of public- and private-sector lawyers, with a median age of 48 years. About one-third of the applicants are women, according to a July demographic report by the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals.

Judicial commissioners will interview the applicants in a public session today. The session will begin at 9 a.m. in the ninth floor conference room at the downtown Jackson County Courthouse, 415 E. 12th St. Interviews likely will conclude about 2:15 p.m.

Commissioners will meet immediately after the interviews to select the names of three applicants to send to the governor.