Madison County

Uncommonwealth: Kentucky's pioneer of court recording turns 90

Judge James Chenault, now retired, had his living room/library outfitted to his specifications,  including the tall wood shelves.
Judge James Chenault, now retired, had his living room/library outfitted to his specifications, including the tall wood shelves. Lexington Herald-Leader

RICHMOND — Retired Madison Circuit Judge James Chenault sits in the library of the house in which he was born and his mother was born before him, on a quiet leafy street in downtown Richmond.

His grandparents settled in this house in 1881.

One hundred years later, in 1981, Chenault's circuit court became the first in the nation to use videotape as an official court record.

He's talking about video and sound recording in courtrooms — specifically how he wanted, while circuit judge, to install a system so sensitive that the listener could hear a mouse urinating on a piece of cotton.

"It doesn't get tired; it doesn't get divorced and move," he said of video recording. "You've got an instant record, completely accurate."

Court reporters, Chenault said, "write down what she or he thinks they heard," and then transcribe it later, leading what Chenault said are two opportunities to get things wrong.

Video is precise. The proceedings and testimony, he said, like the law itself, do not change.

That is Chenault in a nutshell: He turned 90 last week, and he retired in 1993, but he has lost none of the folksiness or the Type A efficiency that distinguished his 27-year run as circuit judge.

In 1984, Robert Stephens, then the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, said Chenault was a leader in initiating courtroom change.

"There's always got to be one person to take an interest in making changes and to shout it out. He's stepped on some toes, but it's been in a good cause," Stephens said.

The move to video was both cheaper and more efficient for judges, attorneys and their clients, Chenault said.

It's ironic that the judge, best known as the man who pioneered video recording in Kentucky courtrooms and put courtroom proceedings on cable TV, sits among stacks of the printed word in a home library outfitted to his specifications: tall dark shelves of nonfiction titles frame the room, and a window looks out at the budding greenery in the yard. Chenault's red-and-gold chair is almost thronelike, and his tiny dog Holly, a mutt with dachshund tendencies, romps around the footstool before flopping down just behind Chenault. His wife, Dot, calls out, fruitlessly, for the dog to move to another room.

Chenault, who spent 27 years on the circuit bench, is still haunted by child custody cases — "two grown people who have a gift of God and are so petty that they turn it over to a stranger" — and the death penalty case of Harold McQueen, sentenced by Chenault to death in 1981 for shooting an unarmed store clerk and executed in 1997.

His grandfather was a lawyer; his father was a lawyer. His daughter, Jean Chenault Logue, is now the circuit judge.

"I never at any time tried to urge or steer Jeanne to be a lawyer," Chenault said.

He never felt pressured to become a lawyer, he said. He grew up during the Depression yet insists he never felt deprived. He interrupted his time at Eastern Kentucky University to start a promising career in the Navy. Eventually, he returned to Kentucky.

But from the time he was in school — at Eastern's "Training School," now Richmond Model, and at Model High School — he knew that he loved the law.

A trick of timing allowed him to receive his bachelor's degree from Eastern and his law degree from the University of Kentucky within two days of each other, in 1949.

His daughter said she came to fully appreciate her father's groundbreaking approach to video in the courtroom when, as a member of the Kentucky court technology committee, she traveled to a technology conference in Long Beach, Calif., and heard her father's name referenced as "the pioneer of court recording."

Her teenage son James, a high schooler named for his grandfather, has not picked a career path.

"We might lay a few hints for James here and there," Logue said, but she would encourage him to do whatever makes him happy.