The OI Interview: Judge Becky Borthwick Part Two

In 2019, Governor Mike Parson made Judge Becky Borthwick the first woman appointed a circuit court judge in the 31st Circuit under the Missouri Plan. Borthwick’s appointment expanded the number of circuit judges in Greene County’s circuit for the first time since 1976.

Judge Borthwick sat down with OI to discuss her career, her promotion, and the state of the legal system. This is the second part of that interview. Part One can be found at this link.

OI: In covering the Greene County Commission, I’ve heard many commissioners and staff lament the slow pace and backlog in the judicial system. Obviously your promotion and adding another circuit judge will help, but from being inside the system do you feel are necessary changes to speed up the system’s processes?

Borthwick: I think a greater understand of what you call process is important. The judge is not the key.

We are a system of government and Springfield used to be a small town with small town problems. Now, we’re an urban court with urban problems. When you reach that size, you have all courts with urban problems facing the same issues we do. The fact we’re focusing on those so much distracts from the fact we all need to work together to find solutions rather than “oh, who’s the squeaky wheel?”

Obviously right now, the public defender with their waiting list is slowing things down. In the associate circuit court, it’s usually three or more months before someone gets a public defender. That’s slowing it down even before it gets to circuit court.

If they get picked up a violation, you have to wait for another public defender. So there are cracks in the wheels where they work, but it’s just an acknowledgement that our society is changing.

The violations that we’re facing are real violations. It used to be small-town, petty thievery and right now it’s cartel type crimes. Murders. We’ve grown to a different level.

OI: Would it be fair to say people still view Springfield as a small town but the judicial system is on the same level as St. Louis or Kansas City?

Borthwick: Exactly. When we go to meetings, that’s how we are grouped. We have the St. Louis contingency, the Kansas City contingency and the Springfield contingency.

When we look at the Springfield/Greene County metro, we are a large force. All the good things that draw people here, it draws the bad people too. It’s something where I don’t think there’s any answer, but it’s a place where we need to pull together rather than pointing fingers.

OI: And that leads into my next question, you created the homeless court. Do you feel courts like that which are focused on areas of trouble in the community can help move the process along?

Borthwick: Absolutely. But, those are community based courts for those little trouble areas. Those are helping more small problems we have, but on the larger scale, Greene County lead by Commissioner Austin has one of the biggest treatment court programs going. So we are cutting edge on treatment court, there’s nothing there lacking.

So absolutely those specialty courts are great. It’s just at this point we have such a volume for everything else.

And people always talk about criminal cases, having to move criminal cases. Those have sex, drugs, rock and roll and jazzy facts.

OI: They get the headlines.

Borthwick: Right. They get the headlines. No one wants to come in and look at my afternoon docket filled with landlord/tenant cases or how many small claims cases I have filed and the length of that backlog.

The court is for people who are unable to resolve their disputes and need to come to a third party, the court, to resolve them. Now people are being more unable, for a variety of reasons, to settle their disputes so they’re more in demand.

OI: When you were appointed to the position as a circuit court judge, attention was paid to the fact you were the first woman appointed as a circuit court judge under the Missouri Court plan for the 31st circuit. Do you feel the court system in Missouri has made a lot of positive strides toward gender equality?

Borthwick: Oh, by golly yes, but I think I was the best person for the job and I don’t think gender played any part in that. But I stay away from that because I think it’s a non-issue.

OI: Many people don’t realize that your judicial education doesn’t stop once you reach the bench. You continue to learn and grow and study just as you did when you were lawyer. But you also had to learn things when you moved from one side of the bench to the other. What would you say are the biggest things you’ve learned as a judge that you did not realize when you were a lawyer?

Borthwick: Oh, what a great question. One thing. There are so many things.

When you’re trained to be a lawyer, and I was a trial lawyer, so I was one of those folks in the front and we knew how to do our job down there. We did our job and trusted the judge to do their job. But we didn’t pay attention to what the judge actually does.

So when you become a judge, it’s not like being another lawyer, you have to learn to be a judge.

I think I was given this beautiful gift of being able to work my way up. You have to learn to talk to pro-se litigants, the people without attorneys. Resolutions in quick and thorough manners. Follow time standards and work within that system of government.

As a lawyer, you’re advocating for one client in your mind at a time, but as a judge you have to work to make the system work in a cohesive manner.

You have to defend the Constitution and that all the things that we believe or hold true are being applied even down to the smallest case. From the murder trial, down to the speeding ticket trial (that I really did have in court yesterday), it goes all the way through.

If we uphold those rules the same, it preserves the system.

OI: In your experience as a judge, you spoke about pro-se litigants (people who represent themselves.) Would you say that it’s not just a cliche and it really is to someone’s advantage to work with an attorney?

Borthwick: It depends on what it is. That’s the great thing about our system.

Think about equating the law with healthcare because we’re both professionals. We go to law school, we go to medical school. You’re paying us for an opinion.

So if you have a divorce that is uncontested, it’s somewhat like having a cold. So you go to Walgreens, you get your cough medicine, sometimes you get better, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes your divorce may go well, sometimes it may not.

But as you move up the line, the further you go in [the legal system], you have issues that are more complex. Your appendix bursts so you need a surgeon. You can’t do that on your own.

You have complex litigation, you need an attorney. It’s the same thing.

I think many people forget it’s the practice of law, the practice of medicine, not the practice of Google.

Whichever attorney you hire, or doctor you hire, they bring all their life’s experience to your case. And while you go to Google and say “hey, Uncle Joe got this much for his knee, I should be able to get that”, someone who is an experienced attorney would be able to explain the whole case.

OI: Would it be fair to say there are nuances to the law that the general public would not know?

Borthwick: Absolutely. You don’t do fillings on your own teeth. If you have a heart attack, you want a cardiac surgeon working on you.

So if you have a complex divorce, you don’t want to have a criminal defense attorney working for you. We all have specialities. You need to figure out what your issue is and get to that level.

This “do it yourself thing”, and it’s not medical professionals. I thought I could tile my floor once. I went to a class and well, it didn’t go so well for me.

Now, I could get someone to fix my tile, but the problem is if you get too far down the road and you do something you can’t undo legally, that’s an incredible difference.

OI: If you look at the history of the criminal justice system, it was designed to be restorative so people would come out of prison and be contributing members of society. In today’s world, people seem to want to see punishment, and they don’t seem as concerned about rehabilitation. As a judge, how do you balance punishment for a crime committed versus rehabilitation to have them come back and contribute to society?

Borthwick: That’s kind of what we do. People are screened for treatment courts and if they meet the criteria, they’re sent down that path.

Those are objective testing measures that our treatment courts do. They’re called “Risk Need Assessments.” People are screened by professionals that are psychologists, they have approved testing tools to see if people are good candidates for rehabilitation.

We don’t just guess. I don’t know if the general public realizes we’re not just guessing. We’re using the best science possible to determine who might be a good candidate for a treatment court.

Not everyone is a good candidate and there are not unlimited resources. The judges are very conscious that they need to spend resources on the very best candidates.

Now, people who may not have that ability to conform or those who are not amenable to treatment, or have committed a crime that is not something that would go to a treatment court, a sentencing structure and philosophy is something you develop as a judge.

I’m so happy I was an associate circuit first because it allowed me to gel and gain a sentencing philosophy and structure before I became a circuit judge.

Now, I kind of see the frailty of human nature. I’ve seen a lot of things over the last several years and I get a better feel for what path people are headed down.

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