‘An incredible human being’: Monroe County Judge Marc Kellams retiring after 38 years

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IDS on 9/19/2018 by Sydney Tomlinson

 Judge Marc Kellams sits in the courtroom at the Monroe County Zietlow Justice Building. Kellams joined the Monroe County Court in 1981. Ty Vinson

At first glance, faith and law may not seem to mix.

Faith, on one hand, requires one to be gentle and forgiving. Law, on the other, requires strength and firmness.

Yet both deal heavily in questions of morality — in deciding what is right and wrong.

Judge Marc Kellams, 69, has explored that mix of faith and law throughout his life and career as a judge on the Monroe County Circuit Court and a deacon through the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“My church would tell me that my goal in life is to love God and to help others,” Kellams said. “I’m not sure there’s really any difference when I’m out on the bench. My job is to help others in one way or another.”

Now, after 38 years, Kellams will retire from the court.

Kellams was appointed by then-Gov. Otis Bowen to his seat Jan. 1, 1981 at only 31 years old.

He had graduated from the IU Maurer School of Law three years prior. While he had hoped to have a judicial career, Kellams never expected it to begin as early as it did.

His undergraduate degree, also from IU, was in religious studies. His interest in moral ethics and desire to help people drove him to law school.

Kellams’ dedication to helping others and serving his community is at the core of everything he does, from his judicial career, to his deaconship, to volunteer work.

Growing up, Kellams’ family was active in their Baptist church, but he converted to Catholicism at 17. He became an ordained deacon through the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in June 2008. He ministers through St. Charles Borromeo Church in Bloomington, mostly visiting and comforting the elderly, sick and dying as well as their families.

While he keeps his two vocations separate in practice, he said he thinks the two are similar as they both deal with the sometimes difficult realities and failures of the human experience. Tending to people’s spiritual needs and issues as a deacon often isn’t much different from handling people’s personal needs and issues in courtroom, he said.

“People think of judges as decision makers,” he said. “I think of judges as solution finders, which sometimes means making a decision, but I like to involve people in the resolution of their own problems as often as I can.”

Kellams has handled a range of criminal cases for the last 15 years, including traffic violations and murder trials. Currently, he also handles all sex crimes.

Most people have the wrong idea of criminal court and just think of it as punishment, he said. But at its best, it’s a blend of holding people accountable in one way or another and finding solutions to better their lives.

“When they’re better off, we’re all better off,” he said.

When he retires from the bench at the start of 2019, Kellams will take on the role of coordinator of prison ministries for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, combining his skills in the law and ministry.

“He’s an incredible human being,” said Inge Van der Cruysse, a lecturer at IU Maurer School of Law. “He’s the kind of person everybody wants on the bench.”

Van der Cruysse was a student in Kellams’ trial advocacy class when she attended Maurer, where he’s taught since 1983. She also knows him as a colleague on the committee for the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, or JLAP.

JLAP is a program through the Indiana State Bar Association and Indiana Supreme Court that organizes volunteers to help judges, attorneys and law students struggling with mental health problems, such as addiction or depression. Kellams was a volunteer before he was appointed to the committee, which acts as the program’s oversight board, by Chief Justice Brent Dickson of the Indiana Supreme Court in 2013.

Terry Harrell, executive director of Indiana JLAP, said Kellams has continued to be dedicated to doing interpersonal volunteer work with JLAP in addition to serving on the committee. He’s always kind and empathetic, but doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, she said.

“I can’t imagine anyone better to talk to about anything that’s worrying you, anything you’re upset about,” said Harrell.

A judge’s demeanor is crucial to their role, said Van der Cruysse. A good judge, like Kellams, should be able to be both empathetic and strict, she said, and always remain calm and poised.

“I’m not a very judgmental person, and I never have been,” Kellams said. “You can be a judge and not be judgmental.”

Harrell is often impressed by Kellams’ ability to genuinely listen to others and make people feel that he cares, she said. He never appears to be in a rush and is always willing to give his time and attention to help someone.

“Everyone says he’s kind and gentle, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t firm,” Harrell said. “He’s a criminal court judge for goodness-sakes. But he’s able to do it all in a way that is kind and gentle and helpful to people.”

Fellow Monroe County Judge Frances Hill says she often turns to Kellams for advice, whether legal or personal.

“There are many times when I’ve come to him and asked, ‘How am I going to deal with this?’” Hill said. “And he’s always just given me a hug and said ‘We’ll go on, we’ll make it.’”

At other times, Hill said she has done the same for him.

In 2009, one of Kellams’ three daughters died of brain cancer.

When friends and colleagues reached out to him with support, he wasn’t too proud to accept their help and sympathy as he and his family grieved, both Hill and Van der Cruysse said.

“It gave me a special insight to those suffering the loss of someone close to them,” Kellams said. “As a result, my understanding of those I see in my courtroom in similar circumstances has been enhanced, and I now have a special connection to those I care for in my ministry to the sick and dying.”

While it was, of course, a significant and tragic loss for his family, others in his life were reminded of his strength and grace.

“Sometimes I think people go through tragic periods in their lives and it completely changes them,” Van der Cruysse said.

But not Kellams.

“His personality was just solidified,” Van der Cruysse said. “He was gracious, he was not too proud to accept sympathy from other people and it didn’t interfere with the quality of his work.”

In retirement, in addition to his new role with the Archdiocese, Kellams will work as a senior judge to fill in for other judges when needed. He looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Chris, their miniature dachshund, Sophia, and their two daughters and five grandsons.

Kellams’ seat will be filled by Christine Talley Haseman, who is running unopposed in the general election in November.