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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Judge's ideas of law, mercy rooted in nuns' lessons

St. Louis

Black-garbed nuns glided through Michael Wolff’s childhood, representing authority and faith, transcendence and folly.

As a Missouri supreme court justice, Wolff, 59, now wears his own symbolic black robe and wields his own authority. But his gavel rests on those early lessons.

One came in third grade, when a nun burst into the classroom livid because Marian Anderson, the African-American opera singer, had come to their town of Rochester, Minn., and had been forced to stay at the colored folks hotel down by the railroad tracks. It wasn’t right, and she took the entire class period to explain just exactly why not.

A different lesson came in fifth grade, from a nun whose favorite world leader was Antonio Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, because he clung to his African colonies and refused to grant them independence. “She talked about African-Americans in a very demeaning way,” said Wolff. “She was old and strict and she hardly taught us anything all year. Just the one big lesson: Here’s a very serious person; don’t take her seriously.”

By high school, Wolf had internalized both the Catholic quest for social justice and the protocol of irreverence. He’d realized that a sense of ultimate authority could stabilize one’s life. And he’d begun distinguishing petty rules and human aberrations from that transcendent core.

His father, a convert to Catholicism, wanted him to go to the public high school because, in those days, it was academically superior. Instead, he went with his friends to Lourdes High School. Years later, as legal counsel to the governor of Missouri, Wolff would fight to keep resources from leaving the state’s urban public schools when the desegregation program ended. “I visited schools that made you feel ashamed to be there, they were so awful,” he said. “Teachers had given up. It made me reflect on the nuns, who believed that every one of us had a soul they were saving. They were going to make us productive members of society. They believed they could. And by God, they didn’t let up.”

Wolff’s father was a gifted musician and artist who supported his family by working as a dental technician. He never complained. But when it came time for Michael to go to college, he gravely ordered him never to make false teeth. “Do something that uses your mind,” he urged. “I want you to go to an Ivy League school. We’ll find the money.”

Only recently, going through papers after his dad’s death, Wolff learned that during his college years, his dad had gone into bankruptcy and never said a word.

Choosing Dartmouth in New Hampshire, Wolff left home. His brother, who had cerebral palsy, did not. And that, too, was a lesson, although he does not present it as one. Growing up, his agile mind and tall, healthy young body stood in sharp relief against his brother’s disabilities. Fate, he decided early, “is so goddamned random it hurts.”

At Dartmouth, Wolff worked on the college newspaper; later, he would work for a daily and soaked up every minute in that inky world, realizing “that there are a lot of good people doing fairly unheralded things. A lot of ordinary people who are in distress in somewhat interesting ways. And a lot of pompous blowhards, and the best thing you can do for them is to quote them exactly.” He also noticed that a lot of very smart people didn’t get very far, and some not so smart people went very far indeed, because their father’s name was on the masthead. Law, by contrast, seemed like “a place where you could gain some autonomy over your life.”

He went to the University of Minnesota Law School, then clerked for a federal judge “who had a finely attuned sense of justice. He was sometimes harsh, sometimes forgiving, but he had a visceral sense of what was right and what was wrong.”

Thus armed, Wolff went to work for Legal Services, and when his wife, a pediatrician, wanted to work at the Indian Health Center, he switched to Legal Services in Rapid City, S.D. “We had a lot of the same clients,” he said wryly. She restored their health; he gave them access to power through information. “And in giving people power,” he said, “you also give them a certain dignity about their lives.”

He remembered a crusty old gentleman he used as the first plaintiff in a class action lawsuit. The case wound up in the federal supplement. “Did you know you are in the law books?” Wolff asked, and handed him a copy. The man saw his name, skimmed the words in amazement, then tried to say something and choked up. He was important -- in fact, he was famous. Finally he managed to get out a single question: “Can I have this?”

For an expectant mother with no money, Wolff got the state’s rules changed so she could receive prenatal care on Medicaid, by extending Aid to Families with Dependent Children to pregnant women.

Another client was losing her house because of “a goofy loan with a balloon payment,” he said. “I worked really hard to find a way she could keep her house, and I failed. A week later she brought me a cake. I said, ‘You baked me a cake? You don’t even have a house!’ She said she was just grateful I had helped her.”

By the time he joined the faculty of St. Louis University School of Law in 1975, Wolff knew how to avoid getting caught up in rules and games and instead, use the letter of the law to protect the human spirit. “When you try to think about how to do things the right way for people, you are always thinking about where they are and how these rules or precepts relate to them,” he said. “The law is there; it’s not just people who have power imposing things on people who don’t have power -- although there’s a fair amount of that! You could look at the system and describe it that way. But you would be missing something, in that there is a fair standard of behavior even for people who have power.”

Named to the Missouri Supreme Court as one of its seven justices in 1998 and reappointed to a 12-year term in 2000, Wolff keeps in mind a retired colleague’s definition: “The job of a Supreme Court judge is to protect the public from trial judges and bureaucrats.”

At other times, the sayings of his grandmother, a strict Catholic ready with lists of the forbidden, fly into consciousness. “The hours after midnight are the devil’s hours,” he hears her intone.

“I have a tendency to agree,” said Wolff, grinning, “but with not quite the same emphasis.” For him, Catholicism has been a lesson in human foibles and the grace of forgiving them. “It causes you to cut through some of this formalistic stuff and be accepting of people,” said Wolff, who attends Mass at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. “It’s the church of the second chance.”

Law, too, can give second chances, rethinking the death penalty for even the most brutal murderer, or exploring the ambiguous parental rights of a sex offender who suffered brain damage. Wolff chairs a state commission on sentencing, and his push is for sentencing that is fair and appropriate, not vengeance that only hardens and dehumanizes the offender.

“There is a harshness in the rigid application of rules,” he said, “but there is a necessity to apply rules sensibly. Law is a very tricky proposition.” He fell silent for a moment, then added, “You also have the concept of mercy.”

Most of us veer either toward rules or toward mercy, setting them up as opposite poles. For Wolff, they’re interwoven.

“That’s one thing I liked about Catholic education,” he remarked. “Authority was always in the mix. It teaches you that at a certain bottom-line basic level, there is a set of absolutes and a set of precepts that need to be adhered to. It’s a way to figure out your core that allows tolerance.”

At Wolff’s core lies the Catholic imperative for social justice. Church teachings on issues like homosexuality, he ignores. “In Minnesota, saying, ‘That’s very interesting,’ is usually a polite way of saying, ‘You’re full of it,’ ” he noted. “There are certain core beliefs one has as a Catholic, but there are also a whole lot of times when the best response I can make is, ‘Y’know, that’s interesting.’ ”

Nuns taught him to discern the difference.

Jeannette Cooperman is an NCR columnist. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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