His biting observations in written opinions on Lexington criminal cases are numerous and notorious; some cover the door in the county prosecutor’s office.
But tough is only one side of Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael Jr., who will soon hang up his robe and retire after 13 years on the bench.
“My one fear is staying a season or two too long,” Ishmael said in an interview. “I turned 71 this fall, and I don’t want someone mumbling in the background, saying, ‘That old senile guy should have gotten out years ago.’”
Being in Ishmael’s court is a little like standing before Jimmy Stewart, had the actor from “It’s a Wonderful Life” been a judge.
He is by turns folksy and earnest, wry and stern. He is given to exclamations of “Golly gee willikers!” and will tell attorneys that it’s time to “fish or cut bait.” Translation: The case at hand has dragged on long enough and needs to be resolved.
But if there is one trademark for Ishmael, it’s the respect he doles out equally from the bench to defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“He is proof that you can be a tough judge while being compassionate,” said fellow Fayette Circuit Judge Kimberly Bunnell.
“Frankly,” Ishmael said, “we’re all equal in the sight of God, and I try to treat them with respect, as I would want myself or my family to be treated.”
Nevertheless, his opinions contain so many chestnuts that folks in the prosecutor’s office collect and display them.
Consider his 2013 written order denying a prison inmate’s request to be declared indigent as he appealed a robbery conviction. Ishmael learned that $2,100 had been deposited into the inmate’s prison account, but the inmate argued that the money was a gift from family and friends to buy shoes, clothes, appliances, food from the inmate canteen, cosmetics and “other needed items.”
Ishmael wrote: “It is inconceivable how the (inmate) could have spent $2,100 in a six-month period on shoes (How many pairs of shoes does one need in prison?), clothes (the Court understands appropriate clothing is provided to an inmate), appliances (what appliances is a state inmate allowed to have anyway?), food from the inmate canteen (Is he supplying snacks to everybody?), cosmetics (give me a break) and other ‘needed items’ not specified.”
Nevertheless, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that Ishmael erroneously imposed a $171 filing fee for the inmate’s motion and ordered a refund.
Ishmael presided over many criminal trials, but one that sticks with him is the 2006 trial of Michael M. Shepherd and Robert B. Miller. Shepherd was convicted of murder and Miller was convicted of complicity to murder in the 2004 slaying of Megan Liebengood, 18, outside her apartment in Lexington.
The jury listened to a 911 tape in which a dispatcher tried to comfort Eric Liebengood as he knelt over his wife of only three months and begged her not to die.
“Go ahead honey, hold her,” the dispatcher told Eric by telephone as he clutched his wife. “Hold her tight.”
“Please wake up, don’t leave me,” Eric Liebengood screamed. “Please wake up! Please wake up!”
The Herald-Leader account of the trial that day said Ishmael turned away from the jury and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Ishmael said. “That one haunts me.”
A native of Lexington, Ishmael graduated from Lafayette High School and Eastern Kentucky University. He majored in mathematics and taught in Florida for a year, but an EKU course on constitutional law whetted his appetite for another career.
Encouraged by his wife, Susan, he took the law school admission test and did so well that he was offered a full academic scholarship to the University of Louisville.
Ishmael was a trial lawyer for 31 years before Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed him to succeed Rebecca Overstreet, who retired in 2004. Ishmael won election later that year.
Ishmael said he is saddened to see so many young men in his court on charges of shooting someone.
“Back in the day, somebody disrespected you, you’d get in a fist fight, and somebody would have a bloody nose and somebody would have a black eye, but everybody went home,” Ishmael said. “But today, everybody’s packing. I’m not for or against anything in regard to gun control. I don’t have a position on that. I just know that too many people have too many guns that are wreaking havoc in our community.”
Ishmael acknowledged that drug court — a specialty court supervised by a judge in which eligible participants complete a substance-abuse program — helped him see defendants in a new light.
“Drug court taught me that everybody ought to be given a chance to address their addiction issues,” he said. “I look on defendants with drug addictions with a sympathetic bent, not that I condone their conduct. So drug court taught me that some will address their addictions through counseling, and I want to give them that chance.”
Ishmael’s retirement date is Dec. 31, but he will be on the bench into the new year. A judicial nominating commission will submit the names of three people to Gov. Matt Bevin, who will pick Ishmael’s successor. But the new judge probably won’t be sworn in until sometime after the new year.
As retirement approaches, Ishmael said, he is exploring the possibility of teaching a Bible study at the Fayette County jail. He taught adult Bible study for 15 years at Southland Christian Church.
He now attends Church of the Savior in Jessamine County, and he plans to go on a mission trip to Peru early next year, accompanied by his two sons, Matthew, 35, and Ben, 29.
“I feel this is something I need to do with my sons. This opportunity came up and I said, I’ve got to do it while I’ve still got a little bit of health to be able to do that.”
He also wants to spend more time with his three grandchildren.
“They don’t care that I’m the judge. They just want to know, ‘What are we going to play today?’”