Time to give back to the community. I’ve been hired to teach criminal procedure to criminal justice and pre-law majors at Friends University in the Spring. I will take a practical approach with two classes (the first one, and one in the middle of the semester) taken up with (1) a panel of prominent law professionals involved in a very high profile case in Sedgwick County, and (2) a moot trial where students will see how to testify and not to testify if called as witnesses. The goal of all law enforcement should be to investigate properly, not violate the Constitution as they do, and only charge cases when there’s zero risk of pretrial dismissals due to unprofessional law enforcement behavior.
There will be a textbook (casebook, actually), but the lectures will be on the procedures involved from opening a case file to taking it to trial. I’m looking forward to it.
My law school, Regent University School of Law, flew me to Virginia last weekend to participate in a panel on technology and its impact on the practice of law. Also at the symposium and on a different panel was a fellow class of ‘99 graduate and law review alumnus Shawn Tuma, who presented on various high tech security issues. Although the information shared by the panelists was terrific, the most memorable part for me was reconnecting with my friend and seeing the campus after almost 18 years.
I love Regent. The school’s mantra, Christian Leadership to Change the World, is what compelled me to attend law school so far away from home—that and the potential opportunity to clerk with the ACLJ, which happened. While many secular law schools are struggling to maintain enrollment and are sacrificing quality of students and with that bar passage rates to stay afloat, Regent has refused to sacrifice its standards just for money. Yet, last year Regent admitted 70 new students, this year more than 90, and its Virginia Bar passage rate exceeds 80 percent in one of the nation’s toughest jurisdictions. It’s gradually increasing enrollment while other schools are still struggling.
I met several law review members. Suffice to say they are brilliant and I’m proud to call them future Regent alumnus. Thanks to Hannah Hempstead for her work putting the symposium together. What an amazing time of spiritual rejuvenation. Getting back to Regent reminded me why I went to law school in the first place. The Law is a calling, and I’m blessed to serve as a Christian lawyer and now judge.
My family and I spent this year’s vacation in Washington D.C. We saw buildings that represent the most important parts of our government, including the White House, the Capital, and the Supreme Court. We also saw monuments dedicated to the Founding Fathers, including the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. We even parked our car in the Ronald Reagan Building’s parking garage!
It’s not the first time my wife and I have been to D.C. We went there a few times when I attended law school in the east coast. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent more time in D.C. It’s humbling to think that our nation, just 250 years old, has developed into such a force in this world. Yet, something else came to mind as we walked the streets of D.C. It feels a bit like Rome. Every structure, including the Smithsonian museums and the aforementioned hallowed halls of government and our forebears’ memorials, put the Greek ruins to shame. They have similar pillars of granite, murals on grand ceilings, and gold inlays everywhere. When you consider how deeply indebted we’ve become as a nation you can’t help but wonder whether those in charge are more concerned with leaving legacies of marble and stone rather than prosperity and hope.
Yet, we still live in the freest nation in the world. We still have a Bill of Rights. We still have three branches of government so no single governmental institution can get away with stripping us of our rights for long. For proof of this, consider the plethora of excellent legal opinions the U.S. Supreme Court issued last week, especially this one.
Lots of other things happened the past week or so that give me hope that we’re headed in an upward trajectory. Specifically, we spent the 4th on the D.C. Mall and watched a spectacular fireworks display. EVERYONE we saw was happy to be an American. I have no idea what party they belonged to–probably a smattering of both–but they were ALL happy. We should all be happy to be Americans. The world is a mess but we are citizens of the greatest, most stable nation on the planet, perhaps the greatest nation that’s ever been. We and our children already have an advantage over those stuck in other countries. Be thankful, regardless of who the president is or if your chosen candidate lost the last election. We are all Americans. Bless you brothers and sisters. Bless you.
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
I received an awesome affirmation yesterday. It’s nice to know that people see your heart when you do a job that’s sometimes unappreciated. I’m humbled by the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Thanks for noticing.
Merry Christmas everyone! What an amazing year. My family and I are blessed by your support. We started a new chapter in our lives in 2016, starting January 21. I call it the reboot of my legal career. After practicing law for almost 17 years I became a judge. My first year on the bench has been challenging, but my diverse legal experiences in private practice and, in particular, as a trial lawyer, prepared me for the task. More important, my faith kept me humble through the process.
Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Judges must stay humble. When you look at the headlines involving disgraced judges, it’s pride at the root of their downfall. I have great respect for the attorneys who practice before me, and compassion for the defendants, parents, and children who appear in my courtroom. My holy task is to ensure that justice and mercy meet in my courtroom and I pray every day for the wisdom I need to render fair, just, and compassionate decisions.
On behalf of my family I thank you for one of the best years of my life. I look forward to serving the citizens of Sedgwick County for many years to come. Again, merry Christmas and have a happy New Year!
Even though I was unopposed, thanks for the support. In case you’re wondering, all the unopposed judges had from around 800 to 1000 write in votes. Love to know (1) who filled out those ballots, and (2) who they wrote in.
Time to come together as a nation and mend the wounds our differences caused.