Retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice James E. Keller, who was highly regarded during nearly 30 years on the bench, 22 of which were spent in Fayette Circuit Court, died Monday afternoon at St. Joseph Hospital after battling cancer. He was 71.
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert said Judge Keller was "just about the perfect judge" — a man with a "big, warm personality," "a great personal presence," integrity, scholarship and a sense of fairness that earned him the respect of even those whom he ruled against.
"He had all of the gifts that a judge needs to be a great judge," said Lambert, who became close friends with Judge Keller during their years on the bench together.
Then-Gov. Paul Patton appointed Judge Keller to the state's highest court in 1999 to replace Robert Stephens in the seat representing Central Kentucky. Judge Keller was elected to represent the court's Fifth District, which includes Fayette and 10 surrounding counties, in 2000.
Since retiring from the Supreme Court in 2005, Judge Keller had served as special counsel at Gess Mattingly & Atchison, where he had an active mediation and arbitration practice, said Tim Cone, managing partner at the law firm. He also served as an expert witness, Cone said.
"He was not ever going to be inactive," Cone said. "He lived the law every moment of every day."
Cone, who had been friends with Judge Keller since law school, said Judge Keller also mentored many young lawyers through the years.
"He was an absolute magnet to anyone who wanted to discuss a personal problem, a legal issue or politics," Cone said. "He loved to talk politics."
In 2006, Judge Keller lost a bid for the state Senate seat held by incumbent Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington.
A native of Harlan, Judge Keller attended Eastern Kentucky University on a football scholarship but left after three years because he was granted early admission to law school at the University of Kentucky. Eastern awarded him a bachelor's degree in business administration in 2000.
Judge Keller earned his law degree from UK in 1965 and spent the first 11 years of his career as an attorney in private practice. He was master commissioner of Fayette Circuit Court from 1969 to 1976.
From 1976 to 1999, during his time as a Fayette Circuit Court judge, he earned a reputation for his expertise in family law and his concern for children.
He helped found Kids' Time, a court-based support program for children whose parents were divorcing, and Parents Education Clinic, a program aimed at teaching parents about how their divorce could affect their young children.
He also helped set up the Fayette Drug Court program, which is intended to help nonviolent drug offenders become productive citizens, and co-founded the nonprofit Mediation Center of Kentucky.
"Alternative dispute resolution has really become more popular," Cone said. "He was at the very beginning of that movement."
Judge Keller served two terms as chief circuit judge and twice was elected president of the Kentucky Circuit Judges Association.
"The strength of his personality and character, and the depth of his intellect and integrity made Jim Keller an exemplar for a generation of Kentucky's trial judges," Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said in a statement issued Tuesday. "The Kentucky Court of Justice mourns his loss."
In addition to his wife of more than 50 years, Elizabeth Morehead Keller, Judge Keller is survived by two daughters, Regina Keller of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Denise Harrod of Frankfort, and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road. Services will be at 2 p.m.
Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.