Nannette Baker began her career as a broadcast journalist. But along the way, she made a sharp turn that brought her to the legal profession. Today she is chief judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District—the first African American woman to preside over a Missouri state court and just the third black judge to serve as chief of the Eastern District.
The Eastern District handles about half of the state’s intermediate appellate case load and covers 25 counties plus the city of St. Louis.
“I didn’t intend to pursue a career as a judge,” the 1978 UT Knoxville communications graduate explains. “I started working at a television station in Knoxville when I was a student at UT. After spending about 13 years as a broadcast journalist in Knoxville, Memphis, and St. Louis, I decided to go to law school.”
She graduated from St. Louis University School of Law and then went to work in Memphis as a judicial law clerk for federal Judge Odell Horton. Horton was the first African American federal judge appointed in Tennessee since Reconstruction.
Baker was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to parents who were educators. Her father was on the faculty at Tuskegee Institute until the family moved to Liberia as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development effort to establish teacher training schools.
Baker recalls living “in the bush”—nowhere close to the nation’s capital of Monrovia. “We went to Liberia when I was five,” she says. “My mother home schooled me for the five years we were there.” Back in the U.S., Baker lived in Alabama and Tennessee and graduated from Father Ryan High School in Nashville.
Her first job out of law school was as a defense lawyer with the St. Louis firm Lashly & Baer, P.C., and she later moved to Schlichter Bogard & Denton, also in St. Louis, where she represented railroad workers who had suffered on-the-job injuries.
Beginning in 1999, she served five years as a circuit judge in St. Louis before being appointed to the Court of Appeals. She has been nominated twice for the state Supreme Court and says she hopes to be considered again. She also might be interested in pursuing a federal judgeship.
While she’s been making a name for herself in the judicial world, Baker has maintained ties to her alma mater as treasurer of the UT Alumni Association. Recalling her student days, she says she had wonderful professors in the College of Communication and Information and particularly enjoyed Volunteer athletics. “When I was in school, we had a great basketball team with the Ernie and Bernie show” (UT basketball greats Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King).
She got involved with the alumni association as the result of her passion for Vol athletics. She went to football game watching parties hosted by the St. Louis UT Alumni Chapter and eventually became president of the group. She’s been a member of the Alumni Association Board of Governors for eight years and still serves as treasurer of the St. Louis chapter. Her brother, John Baker, also is a UT grad.
Among her judicial colleagues, Baker is in the minority as an African American and a woman. But she doesn’t consider that a problem.
“I believe once you put the black robe on, lawyers give you a level of respect regardless of your race or gender.”