Monroe County Judge Ken Todd retiring after more than 40 years

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Indiana Lawyer on 10/3/2018 by Olivia Covington

Monroe Circuit Judge Ken Todd is preparing to retire on Oct. 15 after 40 years on the Monroe County bench. (IL Photo/Olivia Covington)

He may be the one wearing the robe, but the rapport Monroe Circuit Judge Kenneth Todd shares with defendants lacks the rigidity commonly found in court hearings. Instead, as defendants approach the bench, there is a sense of familiarity between him and those whose future he holds in his hands.

“How long have you and I been dealing with each other?” Todd asks a returning prisoner before answering the question himself. It’s been 28 years, if memory serves. “I don’t like sending you to prison,” the judge tells him, explaining that the offender’s actions — a long-running criminal enterprise — had left the judge no choice.

But on this day, a little more than one month left before he leaves the bench in Bloomington, Todd is sending the offender home. In what is likely their final exchange, Todd gives the man a judge’s greatest commission: get a job and never come back to my courtroom.

Acknowledging the offender’s family has suffered greatly due to his incarceration, the judge reminds the man that it is up to him to make decisions that will keep him out of court. He seems to take the judge’s directive seriously, promising, as Todd requested, to never come to his courtroom again.

This back-and-forth is typical of Todd’s judicial style, according to his colleagues. And now, as he reflects on his career before his Oct. 15 retirement, Todd says his interactions with litigants and courtroom colleagues has been the best part of his 40-year stint on the bench.

“I intended to do it for one term, but I found that it was a good fit for me,” Todd said of his judicial career. “I enjoyed that role and the process of dealing with people. That’s what prompted me to stay.”

The path to the bench

The desire to work in the law has always been present in Todd’s life, though he jokingly said the popularity of “Perry Mason” solidified his career choice early on. But the Rushville native didn’t take a typical path into the legal field, opting instead to join the Air Force, complete his law degree, then begin active duty trying as many as two cases for the Air Force per week.

Todd’s military service initially took him to the Rocky Mountain West, but he was later reassigned as a chief prosecuting attorney for a judicial district that covered nine southeastern states. Though he dreamed of eventually returning to the West to become a trial lawyer, Todd ultimately chose to go into private practice in Bloomington for what he thought would be a five-year period.

But when the partner he worked for chose to retire earlier than planned, Todd found himself with the unexpected responsibility of running a law practice in 1975. He then received an unexpected commission from then-Circuit Judge Nat Hill, who asked him to step onto the bench for the first time in 1976 and hear mental health cases as a probate commissioner.

Then in 1977, Hill asked Todd to fill in as a judge pro tempore during a three-month absence. It was during that time that senior attorneys who practiced before Todd urged him to consider a permanent judgeship.

Up until then, Todd’s career goals had focused on his dream of becoming a trial attorney. But when he received a call from the local Republican Party chairman asking him to run on the 1978 judicial ballot, Todd made the decision that would launch his 40-year judicial career. According to state court records, Todd is now one of Indiana’s five longest-serving trial court judges.

Decisions and disagreements

During his 40 years on the bench, Todd’s docket has been consistently busy. He’s heard nearly every type of case imaginable, though he has become more specialized over roughly the last decade, when he began hearing an exclusively criminal docket.

Though he is sincere when he says working with litigants is the best part of his job, nothing makes Todd’s face light up as quickly as when he discusses his time serving with now-Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Monroe Circuit Judge Marc Kellams, who is also retiring this year. Describing their time together as the best part of his professional career, the Todd-Baker-Kellams trio served on the Monroe County courts at a time of great change in the county and in their careers.

Together, the three judges moved the county forward both figuratively and literally in the late 1970s and 1980s, before Baker joined the appellate court in 1989. Vicki Thevenow, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau of Monroe County, remembers working with the judges as a court services director to make changes that, though now commonplace, seemed revolutionary at the time. She gave the example of using local inmates to do maintenance work at the courthouse, rather than using taxpayer money to hire professionals.

But Baker also remembers the bigger decisions, such as advocating for a move from the courthouse to the current Monroe County Justice Building or presenting a unified budget to the county council. Those decisions were all premised on perhaps the biggest change the three judges, along with the other county officers, brought about: the creation of a unified court.

Prior to the unified court, which began operating in the 1980s, Baker said the county court system operated in individual silos that rarely required the judges to consult with one another. But the shift to a unified court required jurists to begin working collaboratively, a transition Todd said led to knock-down-drag-out arguments among him, Baker and Kellams.

But despite what could become vociferous disagreements, Thevenow remembers an expectation of respect among the disagreeing jurists. Baker and Todd agreed with that assessment of their time together, saying that no matter what happened behind closed doors, the three judges would emerge from their meetings as a united force.

“We had disagreements, but we could resolve them without being disagreeable,” Baker said.

Changing perceptions

Though Todd’s experiences have caused him to prize judicial collaboration, Baker also said his colleague and friend has achieved individual success. The appellate judge specifically praised Todd as a compassionate jurist who used his care for others to drive the creation of the county’s first drug treatment court.

Todd presided over the drug court for nearly nine years and described that docket as the best part of his week. The litigants who came into drug court weren’t just any defendants, Todd said — they were people who needed help breaking their addictions and rebuilding their lives. The judge has channeled that passion into service for addiction-related nonprofits, as well, including the organization now known as Centerstone.

“Once I saw the value of how (drug court) functioned … it changed the way I’ve dealt with everybody for the last 10 years,” Todd said.

In the same way that Todd’s perceptions of litigants have changed over the years, so have litigants’ and attorneys’ perceptions of him and the practice of law. The retiring jurist laments the fact that attorneys will appear before him in tennis shoes and open-collared shirts, and he has specific ire for college students who come to court in flip flops and jogging shorts before flagrantly ignoring his orders.

Even so, when Todd contemplated not seeking re-election in 2013, he realized he wasn’t ready to step off the bench just yet. He chose to seek re-election, but his mindset has shifted over the last year as he realized his desire to spend more time with his wife and family.

Though he knows he wants to retire to a family cottage in northern Indiana, the jurist is keeping his options open as he prepares to do something he hasn’t done in 40 years — step off the bench for good.

“It’s a different season of my life,” Todd said, “and one that I’m ready for.”

Find another article about Judge Todd at the IDS.