Suspended ex-Missouri judge resigns powerful appointment

January 31, 2023 GMT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A former Missouri judge on Tuesday stepped down from a powerful appointment after the Missouri Supreme Court suspended his law license for threatening a political opponent years ago.

Judges on the state’s high court ruled unanimously to suspend Philip Prewitt’s law license indefinitely. He can apply to be reinstated in two years.

Prewitt resigned from his position as an administrative judge on the Administrative Hearing Commission shortly after the ruling, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Mike Parson confirmed. Commissioners must be members of the Missouri Bar.

Parson appointed Prewitt to the commission in 2019, as a fight over an abortion clinic’s license was gearing up. The influential but largely low-profile panel handles disputes between state agencies and businesses or individuals.

Prewitt’s law license suspension is related to allegations made against Prewitt during his time as an associate circuit judge in Macon County.

The court found that Prewitt, a Republican, abused his position as a judge by threatening to reveal details of affairs that Democratic challenger Kristen Burks’ husband had in hopes of dissuading her from running against him in 2018.

Court records show the FBI eventually got involved and asked Burks to wear a recorder while confronting Prewitt at a local restaurant about an anonymous letter to her daughter that “crudely described her husband’s infidelity.”

Prewitt told Burks that he didn’t write the letter but that he would publicly talk about the extramarital affairs if Burks didn’t drop out of the judge’s race, according to a transcript of the conversation included in the Supreme Court ruling.

“If you don’t run, no, I’m not going to talk about it,” Prewitt said. “But if you do, yes, it’s going to be everywhere.”

During that conversation, Prewitt threatened to reveal information about the affairs that he said he learned from a former legal client of his, which the Supreme Court wrote would violate confidentiality rules between lawyers and their clients. Prewitt also said he would file an ethics complaint against Burks if she officially entered the race.

“Prewitt knew attempting to coerce Burks through the threat of filing the ethics complaint was not acceptable for a lawyer or a judge,” Supreme Court judges wrote. “He knew revealing confidential information regarding a former client was impermissible. His actions caused potential injury to his former client and the legal system.”

Burks in March 2018 filed a complaint against Prewitt with the Judicial Commission based on the bugged conversation. She ultimately unseated him while running as an independent.

Prewitt said he didn’t bring up the affair during the campaign because of the pending complaint, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

Prewitt and his lawyer, Michael Gross, declined to comment to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Prewitt has told the Supreme Court that he did not break ethics rules and argued he should not be punished.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has ruled against Prewitt for misconduct.

The Missouri Supreme Court in 2015 reprimanded him in part for threatening a candidate for local circuit clerk if she did not take down a yard sign supporting his opponent.

“This similar misconduct suggests an unwillingness by Prewitt to recognize and alter his behavior,” Supreme Court judges wrote in their Tuesday ruling. “Prewitt was acting with a selfish motive, attempting to retain his position by any means. Prewitt refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing.”

The 2015 reprimand also dealt with him encouraging people to donate to local charities on Facebook, including Ray of Hope Pregnancy Care Ministries, an anti-abortion nonprofit. That raised questions about his impartiality on the Administrative Hearing Commission, which handled a dispute over an abortion clinic’s license.