A little less than two years ago I made a decision, one that changed my career path and life forever. After an election season that brought a few surprises, Judge Richard Ballinger passed away. A friend called me and suggested I submit my name for the vacated judgeship. I’d been encouraged to file to run two years before, and two years before that, but this time felt different. It felt right. Before I considered how much I had to lose with shutting down my law practice and the stress that would bring, as well as the hundreds of current and past clients that I’d no longer be able to help, and decided that price was too high. I did this same analysis this time. To be frank, I thought my chances of being considered by Gov. Brownback was slim to none, and none had left town, so the price of changing careers wasn’t a factor. I went for it.
I was shocked when I made the short list of candidates who met with the governor. As I drove home from Topeka after my final interview, I dared to think I had a chance. I began to plan my transition. The ulcers acted up, but I knew it would be fine. Others had done it so why not me?
Gov. Brownback called Kevin O’Connor, not me. I moved on.
Judge Joseph Bribiesca unexpectedly retired. My friend called again. I submitted my name again. I made the shortlist again, but this time when I drove to Topeka for my final interview, only one of Gov. Brownback’s advisors met with me even though at least one other was suppose to be there. A couple uncomfortable questions were asked toward the end of the interview and I knew I was again the proverbial bridesmaid and not the bride.
Gov. Brownback called Deborah Hernandez Mitchell, not me. I decided I had no chance to be appointed so made plans to run for a judgeship instead. By the way, Judges O’Connor and Mitchell are fantastic. They earned their appointments without question.
I filed for Division 24, which was held by a judge who had ethics issues. I assembled a great committee. I mailed a press release that summarized my reasons for filing, which made it clear that I was not holding anything back, and even sent out a letter to members of the Wichita Bar letting them know that I’d staked my claim on the position and planned to “restore integrity to the bench.” I was excited about the campaign and received lots of encouragement from fellow lawyers.
Judge Eric Yost retired. Although this time the colleague who initially advised me to submit my name for the open positions and a few of my campaign committee members suggested I stay the course in division 24, I submitted my name anyway. The governor’s office scheduled an interview for me with Gov. Brownback. The Thursday morning before the interview one of his assistants called to cancel and said it would need to be rescheduled. It wasn’t.
The next Tuesday my friend called to tell me other candidates had been called and told they didn’t get the nomination. Before, the successful candidates were called first, so I assumed I was out in the cold again. Yet…
Gov. Brownback called me and offered me the nomination. I accepted.
Six weeks later–I needed time to transition my practice to another lawyer and shut down the practice–Judge James Fleetwood swore me in as Division 12 judge. Almost one year later I unequivocally say that I know this is where I’m suppose to be even with the financial sacrifices my family has had to make with this career transition. I never thought I’d say this, but I understand how people can say that “it’s not about the money.” Being a judge isn’t and cannot be about the money. It’s about loving the law so much that you make decisions behind the bench that respect the Constituion, are unbiased and without preference to one side or the other, and apply equity and fairness when the law permits or even demands.
I am humbled and honored to be a judge for the citizens of Sedgwick County, Kansas. My journey the past sixteen or so years as a lawyer, including the two years leading up to my appointment to the bench, has been sometimes difficult and always rewarding. I promise to make the most of my experiences as a lawyer and judge by staying humble and committed to the principles that led me to the practice of law in the first place. You will always get a fair hearing in my courtroom, and can expect a decision based on law and truth.
Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!
Hon. Kevin Mark Smith