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There was a time when Randy McGrath could tell you to tuck in your shirt, and you had darn well better do it.
Those were the days when McGrath had the best seat in the house at 1006 New Hampshire St., the city’s Municipal Court.
“If you are going to be in court, the best place to be is on the bench,” McGrath said.
For nearly 13 years, McGrath served as the city’s lone Municipal Court judge. From that seat at the bench, McGrath could control the dress code for the courtroom. With a strike of a gavel he could stop a man’s speech in mid-sentence. With another strike he could tell him his fate.
“You do have that element of control that you can’t really find anywhere else,” McGrath said.
McGrath retired from the bench in 2011, and he’s not embarrassed to admit that he missed the loss of having complete control.
Oh, he’s gotten over it, but there are some parts of the routine that he hasn’t abandoned. He still checks the Douglas County Jail log everyday.
“I see an awful lot of names of people who I dealt with on the bench or as an attorney,” McGrath said.
Think about that for a second. It is no surprise McGrath would still be seeing names from his time as a judge. After all, he retired just two years ago.
But he still sees the same names from when he was a criminal defense attorney for the indigent in Douglas County. McGrath hasn’t served in that role since near the turn of the decade.
“There are still some people having the same problems more than a decade later,” McGrath said. “I guess one thing I’ve learned in this job is that it really takes a lot to pull yourself up.”
McGrath learned a few other tidbits along the way, and he’s recently written a book about them, "Lessons Learned." The bulk of the book is about his 22-year career as a criminal defense attorney, most of it in Lawrence.
During that time, he dealt with a few cases you may not have heard of: Like the time a college student dressed up like Bam-Bam, the Flintstones character, for a Halloween party at a Lawrence bar. He spent the night playfully tapping people over the head with his inflatable club, until . . . whoops, that wasn’t a police officer costume. The handcuffs and the trip to the Douglas County Jail weren’t fake either.
Other cases got lots of headlines, but perhaps you have not thought of them for awhile. Do you remember the man who in 1990 was accused of using a bayoneted AK-47 rifle to bust into Magic Wok restaurant to steal the wallets and purses of the restaurant’s patrons? McGrath was his attorney, but to be fair, McGrath never really had much of a conversation with him. By the time he was returned to Lawrence for trail, he already had been in a gun battle with Wyoming law enforcement officers, and was left with a bullet in his brain and the mental capacity of an 8-year old.
Then there are some cases that have a personal story behind them. In 1991, McGrath was the attorney for Barry Rush, who was in the Douglas County Jail on multiple robbery counts. That case never got to trial either. Rush hung himself from a shower stall in the jail. The story behind the case? A note Rush had written the day before. McGrath found it in his courthouse mailbox the next morning. It simply said: “I need very badly to see you.”
Maybe you’re part of the group that thinks criminal defense attorneys are heartless. Somehow, I think the profession involves some matters of the heart.
It certainly can involve some matters of philosophy. Now that he’s off the bench, McGrath feels free to share that he thinks the legislature makes too many laws, several of which keep the judicial system mighty busy in a college town.
“These college kids are going to drink, they’re going to get a fake I.D., and they aren’t bad kids,” McGrath said. “I don’t think having a beer at 20 years old is that egregious.”
That’s maybe not too surprising of a view from a man who dealt with hundreds of minor in possession cases while he was on the bench. Perhaps more of a surprise is your former Municipal Court judge’s views on how to reduce crime in America: Sterilization.
“From what I have seen, crime is something that is generally inbred,” McGrath wrote in the book.
So, he proposes that some philanthropic organization sponsor a voluntary sterilization program. People who volunteer for the sterilization would receive a payment, and McGrath is guessing many who volunteer are the same people most at risk of raising children in an environment that promotes criminal activity.
“The voluntary sterilization program sounds harsh, but it beats the alternative of many, many people having children who are brought up in a poor, drug-infested and criminal environment,” McGrath writes.
The view from the bench must be unique indeed.
It certainly seems to be a perch that requires a certain type of emotional detachment.
“I never would lecture a defendant too much,” McGrath said. “It was what it was. I never thought any words from me would work wonders.”
No, McGrath figured that out early.
“The probation officer and I would talk about it all the time,” McGrath said. “There are so many people who would go to treatment and then relapse. You can order it all you want, but you have to want it very badly. That’s the only way it works.”
Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson: There are some things even a judge can’t control.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.