When Michael Cordonnier stepped down as presiding judge of the Greene County Circuit Court in March, Jerry Harmison was selected to take up the mantle and lead the judicial team.
His appointment is one of many changes the 31st Judicial Circuit has had within the last year. Presiding judges are voted on by the district’s 12 circuit judges, selected among the judges already serving.
With 10 judicial seat changes in the last 12 months, Harmison said he will be the most senior circuit judge by July 4 when Cordonnier, who is currently still serving as a circuit judge, steps down.
Harmison was appointed as circuit judge by Gov. Mike Parson in September 2022, after he’d served as an associate circuit judge since 2017, when he left his private practice, Harmison & Pearman PC.
Role of presiding judge
Harmison said when Cordonnier passed the torch, the outgoing judge told him, “There’s no problem in this building that’s too small not to take to the presiding judge.”
“We were sort of teasing about it, but at the end of the day, I don’t mind helping people resolve problems,” Harmison said. “Since I am in the courtroom a lot, I’m not the one who resolves all the problems, and that’s where our administrative team comes into play.”
Harmison said being a leader on the bench does not mean being a teacher or boss of the other judges. Instead, it's a behind-the-scenes role working in conjunction with the court administrator and secretary. That means a lot of administrative meetings.
Some of the upcoming tasks administrators will be overseeing, he said, include renovations of the courthouse and the old jail.
Harmison said the change from private practice to being a judge, and now presiding judge, isn’t too different in regard to the level of the learning curve.
“I always tell people I am drinking out of a firehose,” he joked. “There’s just so much you learn in a short period of time that some days, it just seems a bit overwhelming.”
In addition to the administrative role, Harmison also has a caseload of 500-600 cases at any given time, as he still has the same responsibilities as all circuit judges do. However, he said in larger markets with more judges, such as St. Louis, presiding judges do not take on cases and strictly handle administrative work.
In less than a 12-month period, in an unprecedented turnover rate, 10 of the 18 judicial seats will change by September 2023. The 18 seats are made up of associate circuit judges, circuit judges and commissioners.
Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association Executive Director Crista Hogan has said she’s not seen turnover at the judge level so quickly in her lifetime. Hogan said how quickly things have moved forward has been just as unprecedented.
Some of the judges serving had hit the Missouri mandatory retirement age of 70, a few of them decided to make a change and Regi Martin, previously a commissioner, died in February.
Hogan said there is not the same uncertainty now that there was a year ago.
“There was a lot of general nervousness I am sure in the bar as to how this was going to play out,” she said. “I think it has gone very smoothly.”
Dan Wichmer, who has practiced law for over 32 years, was appointed as circuit judge in January and started his judgeship on Feb. 10. He said there is a learning curve, but new judges can rely on the help of the previous judges and incumbents for advice.
“What you learn very quickly is that as opposed to just arguing a side, you’re now responsible for the decisions, and that carries a huge amount of responsibility,” he said. “You always need to keep in mind that you’re trying to get a case to the point of being resolved on its merits. To that end, you’re already struggling to make sure that rules are followed and both parties have the opportunity for due process.”
Two new judges will take on that responsibility soon. On April 26, panels to select judges to fill the seats of circuit Judge David Jones and associate circuit Judge Mark Powell announced candidates in a news release from the Missouri Courts.
Applicants to fill the vacant judge roles are narrowed down to three candidates by a five-person panel. Out of the three canidates selected for each seat, the governor will pick who gets the job within 60 days.
Candidates selected for Jones’ circuit judge seat are Randall Eggert, an assistant federal attorney with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri; Kaiti Greenwade, an associate circuit judge for Greene County; and Steve Kellogg, a public defender. Candidates for Powell’s seat are Zachary McFarland, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Greene County; Kirsten Poppen, an attorney with Neale & Newman LLP; and Amy Westermann, chief counsel of the State Tax Commission of Missouri.
Harmison said the judges will work together in making major decisions about how the court should be run. For instance, Harmison and the other judges on the circuit decided to limit the judgeships to single-term appointments.
“Judge Cordonnier had it the past seven years, and has done an excellent job, especially through COVID,” Harmison said. “But, what the team decided to do was, once the dust settles, I will be the most senior circuit judge, and I was the one appointed. I will finish this calendar year, as Cordonnier retired midyear, and then I will have a two-year term. After that, the next judge in seniority order, Judge [T. Todd Myers], will have a two-year term and so on. We will always know who the next presiding judge will be and we call it ‘PJ-elect.’”
Harmison said all the judges will be learning together, so the learning curve for each presiding judge will not be as large. For new judges, he said a large backlog might not affect them, and, in fact, the case load may drop to pre-2019 numbers, due to staffing issues in other areas of the system.
“Now, we’re in a good flow,” he said. “The police and sheriff’s departments are low in numbers. They’re looking for more recruits. They need officers. Well, until these positions are filled, there are fewer arrests. The prosecutor’s office is also down in numbers. I want to say they are down to nine or 10 attorneys right now in the public defender’s office. So, they can’t do the paperwork for charges that need to be brought.”
Harmison brought to his role of leading the bench a lot of community knowledge and experience in serving and leading, as he was formerly the president of the Springfield Public Schools’ Board of Education and chair of the board for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. He currently serves on the Ozarks Technical Community College Aviation Advisory Board and the alumni foundation board at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, his alma mater, and he is involved in the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise.
“I’ve at least demonstrated the ability to bring people together to have a conversation so that we can all work in the right direction,” he said.
The congregation at Crossway Baptist Church is building a children’s wing at the west end of the church, and beginning in 2024, it will be home to a Christian academy.