Herald-Leader Editorial

Judge James Keller: a force for justice, innovation

June 4, 2014 



Searching through the Herald-Leader's electronic archives for stories in which Judge James Keller figured, one is struck by the central role he played in Lexington's life over the last four decades.

From complicated conflicts among the city's biggest businesses and most prominent families, to cases in which the litigants or defendants were known only to their families, Judge Keller, who died Monday at 71, dispensed justice with a sharp knowledge of the law and human nature.

What his many admirers will most remember, though, are his deep humanity and kindness.

He was a judge who worried about children caught in a divorce's crossfire and who saw the good person buried in the crack addict. So he started a program for divorcing parents and their kids and helped found a drug court in Lexington that served as a model for the state.

He minded his case load but took time to explain to those in his courtroom what was happening and why. He liked to say that fast justice is as nutritious as fast food, which is why courthouses don't have drive-through windows.

As adept as he was at managing trials, Keller chafed at the slow pace and high cost of resolving many civil cases. So in 1992 he helped found the non-profit Mediation Center of Kentucky to help people solve disputes with the help of trained mediators rather than expensive lawyers.

As a retired state Supreme Court justice in 2008, he oversaw talks that led to the settlement of lawsuits by families of the victims of the Comair Flight 5191 crash.

He co-wrote the textbook on family law in Kentucky and took an interest in the careers of young lawyers. His mentorship helped diversify Lexington's bar and judiciary. We often heard him mentioned as a role model by candidates aspiring to become judges in Fayette County.

The Harlan County native, who never lost his mountain twang, won a football scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University and then studied law at the University of Kentucky.

He served on the Fayette Circuit bench from 1976 — he was the state's youngest circuit judge at the time — until 1999 when he was appointed to the state Supreme Court. He was twice elected to the Supreme Court and retired in 2005.

Despite his many accomplishments, Judge Keller was always a friendly down-home storyteller who had time for everyone.

Lexington and Kentucky will be poorer without him.

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