This article was published at the Missourian on July 28, 2016. You can access the story here or read below.
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COLUMBIA — Associate Circuit Judge Deborah Daniels has come a long way since she was a political science and education major at MU in 1972 and learned about checks and balances in government.
Daniel’s father was a private practice lawyer in Fayette, so she grew up seeing firsthand how the checks-and-balance system works between a local government and the legal system.
She wanted more hands-on experience and decided to pursue a degree from the MU School of Law, where she graduated in 1977.
“I saw what lawyers can do for people to give them a voice,” she said. “It was all very attractive to me.”
Her father didn’t like the idea.
“My father came from a different era,” she explained. “He was very unhappy with the notion that I thought a woman could be a lawyer.”
Even her mother asked if she felt bad taking a boy’s place at the law school.
“Only if there were a boy more qualified than me,” Daniels told her.
Now after spending a decade as an associate circuit judge in the 13th Circuit, Daniels, 66, is running to become a judge in the same circuit in the Aug. 2 primary. She is running against Jeff Harris, who was appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to fill the position after Gary Oxenhandler retired in April.
“I don’t want to say ‘legal genius’ — but she’s a legal genius,” Julia Bonham, a criminal defense lawyer, said. “She sees issues from all sides. She puts a lot of thought and time into her decisions. I don’t always agree, but I can see where she’s coming from.”
During her time as associate circuit judge, Daniels said she has helped streamline court proceedings.
Daniels was instrumental in creating a separate domestic violence docket so cases are heard by one judge. Before 2007 in Boone County and 2010 in Callaway County, these cases were scattered in different courtrooms. With the cases in one place, the procedures are processed quicker, Daniels said, and this increases offender accountability and produces a faster resolution for victims.
In 2009, Daniels also helped a cognitive behavior program, Men Employing Non-Violent Directives, receive grant money to continue helping those with a history of domestic violence change their behavior and reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses.
Daniels also said she led an effort in 2010 to set up mini-courtrooms with video cameras at the Missouri University Psychiatric Center and the Truman Veterans Hospital to live-stream cases at the courthouse. This allows patients who are receiving medical treatment to remain in a hospital during hearings. Within six months, the transportation savings covered the cost of the equipment, she said.
Psychiatric doctors from the hospitals have said that, “in particular, this process has helped preserve the dignity of the patient.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without Debbie,” said Kathy Fluesmeier, a court liaison for MU Health Care.
“The 8:15 a.m. docket time that Debbie set up is also convenient. The doctors are able to get their testimonies in before their day begins. It is time-efficient, and we’re not using resources from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.”
Daniels has presided over cases involving MU athletes, including former basketball players Stefhon Hannah and Jason Horton, as well as former football players Tommy Saunders and Derrick Washington.
“Debbie is strong. She’s developed so many programs, and she can outwork any judge on the bench,” said Gracia Backer, a former state Democratic representative for Callaway County.
In addition to her duties as associate circuit judge, Daniels presides over the probate division, which has jurisdiction over estates of the deceased, including trusts and wills. The division also oversees petitions of guardians or conservators for minors and adults with mental illness or substance abuse. In addition, the probate division hears cases regarding alleged sexually violent predators.
Normally, a circuit judge oversees the probate division, but when Daniels became an associate circuit judge in 2006, the presiding judge assigned her to the probate division after the previous circuit judge retired.
“I feel like I am doing the probate judge work as a circuit judge, ” Daniels said. “This candidacy has given me an opportunity to allow the voters to decide whether they want to give me the title to go along with the work I’ve been doing.”
Daniels has also served on the Committee on Procedure in Criminal Cases since 2007. This committee proposes changes to criminal forms and instructions to the Missouri Supreme Court. She is also a member of the Missouri Court Automation Committee, which administered the court system’s move from paper to electronic filing and now maintains the e-filing system.
Additionally, Daniels has completed 120 hours of court-related science and technology training to receive the Advance Science and Technology Adjudication Resource award, and she is the director of the National Courts and Science Institute.
Before she became an associate circuit judge, Daniels was a law clerk for the Missouri Supreme Court, director of research staff at the Supreme Court, an adjunct professor at MU School of Law, an assistant prosecutor for Boone County and an assistant state attorney general.
“Part of being qualified to practice law — part of being a good judge — is finding that balance between being really committed in the legal work and the community that you’re serving,” she said. “You have to stay connected with other people who have different interests.
“Part of the problem with any profession is you can drown in your own Kool-Aid. And one of the ways you can counteract that is by being involved and engaged with people who don’t necessarily do the same things.”
To do that, Daniels serves on the board of directors for the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theater and Heart of Missouri United Way.
She’s a mother to three grown children: Ian Harrison, an engineer for SpaceX; Brette Harrison Turner, the director of international expansion at J. Crew; and Paige Harrison, who works for Central Methodist University at the Center for Teaching and Learning.
“My mom is alongside the everyday members of the community,” said Paige Harrison. “She understands the challenges that all community members face. She volunteered with the public schools when we were kids and now she helps the Heart of Missouri United Way. She always made the time to mentor and give back to the community.”
Daniels’ children are assisting her campaign as much as they can, Daniels said. Her son donated $2,000 to her campaign as of June 30, and daughter Paige helps out during local events.
Turner wrote in a letter to the editor, published July 21 in the Columbia Missourian, to support her mother’s candidacy: “(My mother) is living proof that doing the right thing is not always easy, but it is certainly worth the hard work and dedication it requires.”
To Daniels, though, there’s no such thing as a perfect judge.
“I believe the judges that best fulfill the mission that they’re charged with are those that combine an intelligence and expertise about the law, and at the same time have a good heart.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.