Circuit Judge Rex M. Burlison never shied away from a challenge

Circuit Judge Rex M. Burlison celebrated his 70th birthday last weekend, which in Missouri means his time to retire has come after nearly 13 years of service to the bench here.

At his last Court En Banc meeting May 28, he told fellow judges and court staff he was honored and proud to serve St. Louis.
Burlison at his last CEB meeting - Copy
Above, Judge Burlison gives remarks to fellow judges at his final Court En Banc meeting
May 28, 2024.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” he told everyone. “I look around this room and it’s just a lot of talent in this room. It’s been a great run for me and I sincerely appreciate the time we’ve all had together.”

Burlison’s last day as a St. Louis judge was June 1. His retirement comes about six weeks after that of Circuit Judge Steven R. Ohmer who stepped down in April when he, too, turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for Missouri judges.

Before Burlison’s last day, he reflected on highlights of his decades-long career as a trial attorney, chief counsel in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and as director of former Missouri Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon’s administration.

Burlison appeared ready for some down time last week as he boxed up his chambers to classic rock on his radio and donned a golf polo. He said he has no major plans in the near-term but is looking forward to traveling with family – including cruising Lewis and Clark’s path along the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as an overseas trip to Spain. He’ll also get back to his beloved hobby of restoring classic cars.

“It’s time to take a breath,” he said. “I’ve got a ‘54 Chevrolet panel truck and a ‘53 Ford Crestliner that’s a real head turner,” Burlison said.

(PHOTO: Above, Judge Burlison gives remarks to fellow judges at his final Court En Banc meeting May 28, 2024.

What sticks with you after more than a decade on the bench? What are you going to miss most?

That I was able to carry through the honor and integrity of running a courtroom, that sometimes gets lost. I was practicing law for 20 years as a trial attorney, so I saw a lot of judges and tried a lot of cases. Back in 1998, I was board certified by the National Trial Association as a civil trial attorney. As a judge, I presided over many trials.  During the five-year period between 2013 and 2017, we were in jury trials 388 days, averaging almost 80 jury trial days per year. So coming from not only as a trial attorney, but as a trial judge, I believe there are certain ways a judge should run their courtroom. They should show up on time – at 9 o’clock they should be hitting the gavel. I used the gavel, you know, to open and close court. Not many judges still do that. I used the Old English mannerisms – they didn’t tell witnesses ‘you’re excused’ from the stand. They said ‘You may stand down.’ I call my clerk, ‘Madam Clerk.’

Why is that important to you?

I was caught up in trying to carry on the proper way of courtroom decorum. I look at my chair here as me just being a placeholder in 

the big picture of this jurisdiction, a placeholder in Division 10 until they tell me I’m 70 and I have to leave. It’s important that while I’m holding this place, that I carry on the tradition that honors the judicial profession. It’s just important to preserve the integrity and history because circuit judges come and go, but the courts are going to keep going on.

What are you most proud of? Where did you make the biggest difference?

“There wasn’t a challenge that I shied away from,” he said, referring to handling the controversial criminal case against former Gov. Eric Greitens, as presiding judge, working with a struggling Circuit Attorney’s Office and facing a lawsuit against the court over defendants receiving legal representation at their initial bond appearances. The latter, he said, led to the creation of the 22nd Circuit’s Pretrial Services Office that helps balance the scales for defendants at the initial phase of a criminal case. He said he’s also proud, when Presiding Judge, to have kept the circuits doors open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s been the most frustrating part of being a judge? Any regrets or anything you would have done differently, if given the chance?

Judge Burlison and Judge Colbert-Botchway - Copy
This is the best job. If I had one regret, I think I would have liked to devote more time to having a program to assist new judges. When a judge gets appointed and it’s like, ‘here’s your docket.’ It’s not like you have an intense presentation of how this jurisdiction works and what’s expected of you. I didn’t realize how important that would have been to train new judges, giving them a little bit of room to get their legs under them.

What’s changed for better or for worse over your time here?

For the better, I really think we’ve improved our circuit by how fair defendants’ cases in pretrial are looked at. I think that really bettered the circuit, the fact that we set up a system where we take a hard look at a defendant’s bond. We went above and beyond what (Rule 33) required by setting up an interview process with defendants upon arrest, providing and assisting in completing pretrial forms, and public defender applications and providing defendants with contract lawyers for their initial bond hearings. That bettered the process. If you look at all the different aspects of what it takes to put a circuit together and deliver it to people, we have moved the ball.

Judges Rex M. Burlison and Nicole Colbert-Botchway in
Burlison's chambers on May 29, 2024. They worked
together in the Missouri Attorney General's Office before b
ecoming judges in the 22nd Judicial Circuit.