Judge Kinder hears controversial cases in stride

December 14, 1999
By: Francie Krantz
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - It's been a busy autumn in the courtroom of Cole County Circuit Judge Byron L. Kinder. From the controversial decision forcing Planned Parenthood to return state family planning funds, to the high-profile sentencing of Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis, on tax evasion charges, Kinder has presided over some of the most politically thorny legal questions of this year.

But deciding challenging and controversial cases is nothing new to Kinder, 66, a veteran jurist who has sat on the bench in Jefferson City for the past 27 years. He says although the cases he hears are often challenging, he loves his job and would not want to be a judge anywhere else.

"Here, it's like a kaleidoscope," Kinder says. "Because it's the seat of government, this is the first appelate court for administrative matters of the state. We get interesting, complicated cases."

As the most senior member of the bench in Cole County, Kinder has built a reputation for being intimidating, abrupt, and quick on his feet. But those who have gotten to know him best say he is exceptionally bright, a man who cares deeply about the law and teaching others about its principles.

Judge Thomas Brown III, who has served on the bench with Kinder for the past 14 years, says before he was a judge, he found Kinder to be a daunting figure.

"When I was a young lawyer, he was very intimidating to me," Brown says. "He has a strong presence and he thinks very quickly. You always had to be on your toes and prepared for him."

But now, Brown describes Kinder as a mentor who has the talent to immediately come to a decision that makes sense.

"He has a philosophy of judging, in terms of seeing the bigger picture," Brown says. "He's a senior judge in every sense of the word."

THE ROAD TO THE BENCH

Kinder has spent a majority of his life in Jefferson City. Born in Cape Girardeau in 1933, Kinder moved to Cole County when he was eight years old, after his father got a job in the State Treasurer's office. His mother also worked with the state government as a lobbyist.

While he was still in high school, Kinder volunteered for the campaign of Sen. Thomas Hennings, a Democrat who would play a central role in Kinder's later years.

Kinder wasn't sure what he wanted to do after he graduated, so he decided to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia, majoring in history and political science. Hennings, who remembered Kinder's work during his campaign, offered him an appointment to the military academy in West Point, NY. It was at the height of the Korean War and Kinder was ready to join his fellow Americans in the fight overseas.

But as fate would have it, Kinder's poor math skills prevented him from going to the military academy. He flunked the entrance exam by one point.

"If I had passed everything and gone to the academy, I could have been Schwartzkopf because that was his class," Kinder jokes.

Instead of attending West Point, Hennings offered Kinder a position in the Senate police force on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, he also took classes at George Washington University.

In 1954, Kinder returned to Missouri and finished his degree at MU. He then came back to Washington and attended Georgetown Law School. His post-graduate education was interrupted briefly, when he served in Germany as an Army artillery officer.

Kinder says working on Capitol Hill was a wonderful experience for him. He intended to stay in Washington after finishing law school, in order to work at one of the various executive agencies. But Hennings, before he died in 1960, had told Kinder that the nation's Capitol was no place to practice law, and it would be an absolute waste to go to law school and not be a lawyer.

Kinder returned to Cole County, where he entered private practice and soon rose up in the ranks to become first an assistant to the prosecutor, and eventually county prosecutor. In 1971, he decided to run for the office of Circuit Judge for the Second District. And the rest, as he says, is history.

THE JUDGE IN ACTION

Kinder's chambers, on the fourth floor of the castle-like Cole County courthouse, overlooks the muddy banks of the Missouri River. The wood-paneled walls feature pictures of Jefferson City in the 1870s, as well as Kinder's favorite places in the English countryside. The judge travels to Great Britain every year with his wife, Ellen, but was unable to go this year due to the unusual load of cases.

Next door to his office is the courtroom for District II. Kinder's court is not large and spacious like those seen on the TV shows "Law and Order" or "The Practice." The walls and seats are white and stark. There are two television sets hanging down from the walls, which allows him to watch the transfer of prisoners from the county jail to the courthouse.

Kinder installed the closed circuit television system -- the first of its kind in the state -- ten years ago with the aid of state and city funds. Since then, not one prisoner has escaped from jail.

Behind the bench is a portrait of former Cole County Circuit Judge Sam Blair, whom Kinder describes as his "mentor."

"I decided to run for the judge's position because Sam thought I'd enjoy it and be good at it," Kinder says. "I don't know if I'm any good at it, but I certainly enjoy it."

Over the years, Kinder says he's heard a number of memorable and important cases. One case that thrust him into the headlines occurred in 1993, when the state's school funding formula was up for review. Back then, he says, the money wasn't being distributed equally, and some kids were getting the short end of the stick.

"It was the most important case I ever heard," he says now, cocking his head to the side and recounting how he had found some parts of the school formula unconstitutional. "If that had not been done, we wouldn't have much of a school system today."

A KINDER PHILOSOPHY

From Kinder's chambers, trees and buildings obscure the view of the State Capitol building. The judge says that politics play no role in his decisions, even though the city where he presides is a political town.

"I was a Democrat and I am a Democrat, but that doesn't make any difference," he says. "I have an overriding responsibility to do the right thing.

Even though he has been a Democrat for most of his life, Kinder's wife, Ellen is a Republican. She works as a lobbyist for the McCarthy Group, which is run by former state Republican Sen. Thomas McCarthy.

Kinder says he disqualifies himself from cases that have anything to do with his wife's interests. But in 1998, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch criticized Kinder for his affiliation with McCarthy.

A July, 1998 Post-Dispatch editorial accused Kinder of mishandling a case involving the insolvent Transit Casualty Insurance Company of St. Louis. Kinder had placed the company into state receivership in 1989, and the Post-Dispatch criticized him for allowing McCarthy's law firm to earn $12.6 million off of the Transit case.

Kinder said he would not comment on the Post's editorial or the Transit case, and says he disqualified himself from all parts of the case that represented a conflict of interest.

Overall, Kinder has avoided negative criticism about how he does his job. He says being a judge is an art, not a science.

"There is no 12-step program to being a judge," he says, smoothing out his tie and putting his feet up on his desk. "Everyone has overriding biases and prejudices -- it's all a part of being human."

To him, watching a lawsuit is like watching a ballet. "To take a complex matter that's abstract and teach you about it through a third person is difficult," he says. "To see a good practice of that art is a pleasure."

At the end of the day, Kinder says he tries to leave it all at the door of his office, and doesn't dwell on his caseload.

"You never see a happy marriage, a well-adjusted adolescent, kids taking care of their elders, or contracts that work out; all you see are the wrecks," he says. "If you dwell on that, you become pretty cynical."

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Kinder loves his job, but he's beginning to face up to the reality that his days at the Cole County courthouse are numbered. He'll be 69 when his six-year term ends in 2002, and the mandatory age of retirement for Missouri judges is 70.

But Kinder doesn't plan on hanging up his judicial robes forever. He said he wants to take senior judge status, which would allow the Supreme Court to assign him to preside over different cases.

"I plan on being a judge until I get sick or they remove me," Kinder says. "I have no desire to go quietly into the night."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Judge Byron L. Kinder

Democrat

Elected to bench 1972, 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996

Education: A.B. Degree, University of Missouri-Columbia, LL.B degree, Georgetown Law University

Personal: Married to Ruth A. Hansen, 1959-1977, two children. Married to Ellen Maclay Taylor, 1978.


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