Judge Mary Kay Royse died last week. In her honor, Gov. Bill Graves ordered that flags fly at half staff throughout the state. It was fitting, for Judge Royse had been that exemplary citizen who made Kansas a better place.
She was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary member of the legal profession. And, she touched the hearts and souls of those who filled the church at the funeral mass said for her at the Church of the Holy Name in Topeka and of many more who could not be there.
When she died Judge Royse was just 49 years old. She lived a singular life and had a remarkable career, overcoming impediments that would have stopped a lesser person. When she was 13 she was diagnosed with lupus and told that she had but months to live. But she did not give up. She fought her disease and she won. After high school she went on to Emporia State earning both bachelor's and master's degrees.
She taught for several years and then entered law school at Kansas University, graduating in 1978. She achieved the law school's highest academic honors becoming editor-in-chief of the Kansas Law Review and member of Order of the Coif. She practiced law in Wichita and, in 1986, became a district judge for the 18th Judicial District.
In 1993, Gov. Joan Finney appointed her as the second woman ever to
sit on the Kansas Court of Appeals. She served on that court with grace and distinction. Her opinions were models of intelligence, scholarship and humanity. She was respected by her colleagues and the lawyers who came before her.
At her funeral mass, Judge Royse was called a pioneer, and that she was in the best sense of the word. Like those strong-willed and hardy women who crossed the plains in their Conestoga wagons driven on by a dream of freedom, Judge Royse had strong will and great determination. She was committed to do what was right, to make her mark in her community and in her state, and to serve to the best of her abilities, first as a practicing lawyer and then as a judge.
She was not arrogant, although she certainly had every right to be proud. She did not force herself or her opinions on others, although she gave freely of her sound advice and good counsel. She was quiet and she was determined. She was, as Judge Christel Marquardt, her colleague on the Court of Appeals characterized her, a strong woman.
Judge Royse succeeded in the legal profession in a remarkably short span of time. Law was not an easy career choice when she graduated from law school in 1978 and, perhaps, not the easiest choice today. Glass ceilings are being shattered, but bias is a long-lasting poison. But Kansas has been truly blessed in having a group of strong women lawyers come into their own in recent decades, women who have been willing to be pioneers and to take the risks necessary to succeed as lawyers and judges.
Judge Royse was one of these women. She was a role model for women in the profession. And, indeed, she was a role model for all, regardless of gender. She served first as a lawyer and then as a judge with honor and distinction. She taught at the law school and she helped young lawyers informally, sharing her experience and skills. She was active in professional associations and won numerous awards. She was a shining star of the Kansas Bar.
We hoped she would be with us for decades more, but that was not to be. Her loss to the Bar, to the State of Kansas, and to all those who knew her is great. We are diminished by her passing. May she rest in peace and may we all take inspiration from her life.