Remembering Judge Charles A. Shaw A longtime black jurist leaves a worthy legacy.

Judge Charles A. Shaw, Senior United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri and a favorite son of North St. Louis. (Photo courtesy The St. Louis American)

The bailiff announced in a stentorious voice, “All rise for the judge.” Instead of entering his court from the door behind his bench, Judge Charles A. Shaw twirled in from a side entrance. His black robe flapping around him, he threw up his hands and singsonged “Here Come Da Judge” from the popular 1960s television comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Shaw took his legendary sense of humor with him when he left St. Louis Circuit Court in 1993 for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri. During one particular sentencing, he asked the prosecutor what he thought of a defense document. “This is a forgery,” said then-Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen. Looking at the defendant, Judge Shaw quipped, “Ruh Roh,” like Scooby Doo, and sentenced her to the maximum time.

“Charles was unique with his sharp and irreverent sense of humor,” says his colleague, U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig.

Reporters watching him knew judges and police officers often use humor to alleviate the mood of suffering they encounter.

Shaw’s lack of pretension was uncommon among his peers when he became a federal prosecutor in 1980. Some older federal judges ruled as though their robes were trimmed in ermine. Lawyers cringed at their cruelty.

“Charles as a judge was never oppressive nor demeaning to lawyers,” says Rosen, now an adjunct law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “He erred on the side of being human.”

But if a lawyer arrived unprepared, he snapped, “You came to a hatchet fight without a hatchet.” To arrogant attorneys, he said, “See this robe. It’s not a shirt.”

Shaw’s lack of pretension was uncommon among his peers when he became a federal prosecutor in 1980. Some older federal judges ruled as though their robes were trimmed in ermine. Lawyers cringed at their cruelty.

Shaw loved telling the story about the New York lawyer who wore only bespoke suits. While in St. Louis for a trial, he went to a top tailor to make him a new suit. “You don’t need as much fabric here as you did in New York,” said the tailor. “Why’s that?” asked the lawyer. “You’re not as big in St. Louis as you are in New York,” the tailor answered.

Shaw believed judicial power was not about his ability to exert power but rather was the means to help people. He did not see case numbers, he saw human beings. “When he conducted proceedings, he was very cognizant of all of the family members involved,” says Judge Fleissig. “He had a way of speaking to everyone in the room, his tone of voice and what he was saying. He spoke in a way that everyone would understand. He never talked down to anyone.”

Shaw described the products liability case involving a 10-year-old girl the most “emotionally gut-wrenching” trial of his career. She had been horribly disfigured in a fire caused by a kerosene heater. Her mother testified that when the bandages were removed, the child saw her reflection and asked, “Who is that?” The court reporter wept, and the jurors became so upset that the defense attorney moved for a mistrial. Judge Shaw ruled no, and the jury awarded the family the then-largest verdict in Missouri history, $25 million, in 1991.

He agonized over sentencings. He believed some nonviolent defendants could turn their lives around. “He thought he could change the world one person at a time,” says his brother, Booker T. Shaw, a retired judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District.

That philosophy cost him during the era of mandatory drug sentencing. U.S. District Judge Shaw and U.S. District Judge Clyde Cahill, also African-American, refused to follow the federal draconian guidelines which stipulated that convictions involving crack cocaine carry up to 10 times more prison time than ones involving powder cocaine. The judges, both former prosecutors, felt mandatory sentencing took away their experience and discretion. These are not guidelines if they are mandatory, Judge Shaw said. The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals constantly overruled both Shaw and Cahill. “Federal Judge Is Scolded” read the headline in The New York Times, in 2002, about Shaw. The War On Drugs policy was labeled racist for crack is cheap and smoked by poor blacks while powder cocaine, the costlier drug, is snorted usually by wealthier whites. By 2005, the federal guidelines were no longer mandatory.

He agonized over sentencings. He believed some nonviolent defendants could turn their lives around. “He thought he could change the world one person at a time,” says his brother, Booker T. Shaw, a retired judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. That philosophy cost him during the era of mandatory drug sentencing.

Even with discretionary sentencing, one drug case bounced twice between Judge Shaw’s courtroom and the 8th Circuit. The amount of crack at issue was the weight of nine individual Life Savers. Shaw had sentenced Kendrix Feemster to 10 years. The 8th Circuit had demanded 30 years. Shaw refused. The case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court who sent it back to the 8th Circuit. The appellate judges finally upheld Shaw’s ruling that the harsher sentence was unjust.

The judge did not see this vindication as an ego stroke. It was not a win for himself, but for the young, poor, black defendant.

Shaw learned humility from his parents, who were very strict, says Booker, now a partner at Thompson Coburn law firm. Their late father, Alvis Shaw Sr., was known as “the mayor of Greer Street,” in the Ville, the famed historically black neighborhood in North St. Louis. Neighbors lined up to ask for his advice. Their late mother, Sarah Weddle Shaw, was asked how she produced two sons who went on the bench. “I kept my foot on their necks at all times,” she told Shirley Davis, her son’s paralegal.

Some of that humility was protection against systemic racism. Despite his head of white hair and dark three-piece suits, Shaw was stopped frequently by police as he drove in north county. “I have to keep my federal badge on the passenger seat,” he told my class at Washington University in St. Louis.  He knew racial profiling from direct experience.

Growing up, his entire world was segregated. Schools, neighborhood, and church. In his autobiography, Watch Everything: A Judicial Memoir With A Point Of View, [iUniverse, 2013], he tells of being turned away from a downtown restaurant. He explained to the WU class that is why older blacks entertained at home rather than going out the way whites did. The students appreciated his candor.

“He was mentoring all the time,” says Booker.

The judge began mentoring as a senior in law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He and his wife Kay would host Friday pizza nights for younger African American students, including his brother, Booker. As they ate, he reminded them to stay focused on school.

Despite his head of white hair and dark three-piece suits, Shaw was stopped frequently by police as he drove in north county. “I have to keep my federal badge on the passenger seat,” he told my class at Washington University in St. Louis.

He mentored lawyers, too. “When a trial jury went out to deliberate, he’d call the attorneys into his chambers and explain how they could better build their cases in the future. How they could handle objections better,” says Booker Shaw.

“Charles took note of everything,” Judge Fleissig says. “Whenever one of us did something kind, he’d say something. It was an aspect of his humanity.”

Becoming a judge had not been his initial plan. Shaw enjoyed trying cases as a federal prosecutor when U.S. Appellate Judge Theodore McMillian asked, “Have you thought of applying to become a state judge?” “He encouraged me,” Shaw told me. “There’s a lot of ‘you can’t’ in the black community.” Defeatism was a defense against racism. One can never be hurt or disappointed, frustrated or angered, in struggling against white privilege, if one never tries.

It took twelve tries, but Shaw persevered and was sworn in as a judge in the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri in 1987. The structural impediments to professional blacks cannot be overcome without effort, sacrifice, and true determination.

He understood that ‘You can’t’ is often internalized by African Americans. To combat that, Shaw was an active member of the national black men’s service organization, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Eta Boulé). Professionally successful, Boulé members mentor promising black youths one-on-one, some of whom are the first generation in their families to attend college and often come from single-mother households.

It took twelve tries, but Shaw persevered and was sworn in as a judge in the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri in 1987. The structural impediments to professional blacks cannot be overcome without effort, sacrifice, and true determination.

Worn out by battling the 8th Circuit and wanting to travel more, Judge Shaw began in 2006 to consider taking senior status. He waited until President Obama took office and stepped down to a lighter caseload in late 2009.

Booker Shaw recently reported to his brother how a childhood neighbor faced big medical bills with little money. “Let’s pay to get his teeth fixed for him,” Charles said. At the time, he was in very ill health himself.

“He was thinking of teaching law whenever he retired,” Booker says. “But time was not on his side.”

Charles Alexander Shaw passed away Easter Sunday, April 12. He was 75. He had served his country 42 years, 27 on the federal bench, six on the state bench, and seven as a federal prosecutor. Among his peers in the St. Louis legal profession, he will be remembered as a skilled lawyer, a just jurist, and a good man.

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