Senior U.S. District Judge Karl Forester, a fixture on the federal bench for the Eastern District of Kentucky since 1988, died Saturday at his Lexington home. He was 73.
Friends and colleagues said Judge Forester had been dealing with some health problems but was still actively handling cases until recently. He had been on senior — or reduced case load — status since 2005.
During a long and distinguished career, Judge Forester handled cases of every kind, from straightforward criminal issues to complex civil matters such as litigation stemming from the 2006 crash of ComAir Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport.
But attorneys and other judges also said Saturday that he invariably treated everyone who came before him fairly and courteously, whether they were defendants or celebrated legal experts.
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"No matter who you were, no matter how intelligent, no matter how wealthy, Karl treated everyone equally," said U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell, chief judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky. "I just thought he embodied what I thought a federal judge ought to be. He had a keen intellect, enhanced by common sense and a great wit."
Senior U.S. District Judge Joe Hood was one who felt that wit. Judge Forester would somehow arrange for a thick phone book to be placed on Hood's chair at the bench when Hood was presiding over court.
"He thought I needed that in order to see over the bench," Hood recalled Saturday. "And he would just cackle over that, he thought it was so funny."
Hood, who had known Judge Forester since they were undergraduates at the University of Kentucky, called him a "good, good man, a great friend and a wonderful colleague."
Lexington attorney Mark Wohlander called Judge Forester, who grew up in Harlan County, "one of the finest country lawyers ever on the bench."
"You knew that whichever side of a case you were on, he was going to do the right thing, because that's the kind of man he was," Wohlander said.
A longtime close friend, attorney Phil Scott, said Judge Forester "had a remarkable talent for getting to the heart of a matter and deciding things correctly," Scott said. "When he handled the Flight 5191 case, all of the litigants said how much they respected the way he handled it.
"He was always a gentleman, but you did not want to cross him. He commanded that courtroom."
Judge Forester was born May 2, 1940, in Harlan. He completed his law degree at the University of Kentucky in 1966 and practiced law in Eastern Kentucky until President Ronald Reagan nominated him for the federal bench in 1988. He originally presided over federal court in Pikeville but soon was reassigned to Lexington
He is survived by his wife, Tarasa; two children, William Todd Forester and Mary Beth Cutter; and four grandchildren.
Milward's on North Broadway is in charge of arrangements, which are incomplete.