Thomas C. Grady, the senior judge of the St. Louis Circuit Court and its unofficial historian, will retire Jan. 1, 2015, after 38 years on the bench.
Grady has had a keen lifelong interest in St. Louis history and architecture and often peppers his remarks from the bench with historic references — occasionally to the puzzlement of younger lawyers. For example, when a lawyer’s questioning of a witness meanders too far, he will caution that growing up in South St. Louis, he always preferred the Grand streetcar, which ran in a straight line, to the 39th Street streetcar, which “ran all over the place.”
He has compiled a collection of thick scrapbooks and poster boards of court history, often annotated with his comments and opinions, which he will bequeath to the new presiding judge.
His love of history and architecture has put him on several local boards, including the Commission of the Missouri History Museum, and sometimes expresses itself in his personal style. He is one of the fashion holdouts for straw hats in the summer. He drove a ’54 Mercedes 220S sedan through the Eighties, replacing it with a ’48 Packard. A self-effacing man, he sold the Packard when a friend told him it attracted much attention in his travels about town.
After a period of relaxation — “You’re always on when you are a judge, and it’s stressful,” he says — Grady plans to finish a book on the history of Vandeventer Place and to write an article on the sociology of the larger cotton boats that once frequented the St. Louis wharf.
Grady was elected a city magistrate in 1976, assigned to criminal misdemeanors. In a reorganization of the courts, he became an associate circuit judge in 1978, where he contributed to the administrative design of the present 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri.
As the court’s presiding judge in 2007-2008, he had to rebuild the current centralized docketing system to eliminate the potential for lawyers steering cases to specific judges. “I stood my ground on the importance of random assignments,” he recalls. “At the time, few seemed to understand how to develop a central assignment system.”
He added, “The thing I’m most proud of is appointing Judge Joan Moriarty as the first Criminal Assignment Judge in Div. 16. In her first year, she disposed of 1,000 backlogged cases. It relieved jail crowding and saved city budgets hundreds of thousands.”
The thing he has appreciated most about serving on the bench is the interaction with lawyers. “The trial lawyers here have a very high standard,” he said. “The young lawyers have been very patient with me. I have tried to help them develop a three-dimensional perspective on St. Louis.”
Asked to recall outstanding cases over his 38 years, he struggled. “My point of view has always been that each case is important in its own right, and that’s what our laws provide,” he said. “I’ve always been a little embarrassed about everyone standing when I enter the courtroom. But it’s out of respect for the law, and not for me, so I endure it.”
After some thought, he settled on a 1998 civil case involving tainted blood products that led some hemophiliacs to develop AIDS. “There were excellent lawyers on both sides, and it was a pleasure to work with them,” he said. A three-week trial resulted in a plaintiffs’ verdict of $1.4 million. “It turned out to be something of a landmark, because 36 similar cases around the country rapidly settled after that.”
While he acknowledges that certain court reforms have improved justice, he complains that they have sanitized the atmosphere and removed some of the charm and colorful people from the courthouse. “In those days, when a young person got into trouble, he had to seek out help from adult friends and family to gather funds, and that usually involved a bail bondsman. This, in turn got more responsible people involved in the young person’s life. The bondsmen were some tough characters, and they tended to worked with certain attorneys, and they each had their collection agents waiting around in the hallways. I miss that Damon Runyon environment.”