Douglas County chief judge looks back over his career, prepares for retirement

If Douglas County District Court’s chief judge, Robert Fairchild, hadn’t pursued a career in law, he might have been a full-time educator, said longtime friend and fellow judge Peggy Kittel.

His natural ability, level-headed temperament and patience, among other things, make him a perfect candidate to teach, Kittel said.

“He just has a knack for it,” she said.

photo by: Nick Krug

Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Robert Fairchild will soon be leaving the bench in Lawrence after serving for 20 years, 14 of which were spent as the district's chief judge. Fairchild will be phasing into retirement beginning Sept. 9 and will be sitting as a senior judge in districts around Kansas.

As his retirement approaches, Fairchild said he’s quite happy with the way things turned out. In fact, he’s been been able to teach a bit anyway, both in and out of the classroom.

On Sept. 9, Fairchild will step down from his position as the district’s chief judge, one he has held for about 14 years, and into the position of senior judge.

The transition is something he considers one step closer to full-blown retirement, which he’s not quite ready for.

“Going full blast all the time to nothing would be hard, I think,” he said.

A native of Prairie Village, Fairchild, 68, said he has always had a strong interest in the law. He graduated from Texas Tech University in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in economics. He later graduated from the University of Kansas School of Law in 1973.

He also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

Working as an attorney for 23 years, Fairchild practiced family, municipal and construction law alongside general litigation and criminal, juvenile and civil cases, to name a few areas of expertise.

And though his private practice career spanned many disciplines, Kittel said, he has a special skill set.

Often lawyers can be antagonistic or contrarian, Kittel said. Fairchild, however, seeks a type of equilibrium.

“Mediation, alternative dispute resolution,” she said. “He’s always looking for fairness. The right results.”

“I believe in mediation,” Fairchild said. “I believe in trying to get cases resolved before they get to court. Ironic for a judge, I know.”

And in 1996, Fairchild was appointed Division One judge in Douglas County District Court, a position that better suited him, he said.

“It fit my personality better than being an advocate in some ways,” he said. “I really wanted to try and get things done.”

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said he began practicing law the same year Fairchild took the bench. And since that time the two might not always see eye to eye, but it has always been clear that Fairchild sought to be fair, he said.

“Whether somebody is a pro se litigant or one of the most powerful firms in town, he treats everyone fairly and hears everything they have to say,” Branson said. “I might not always agree with his decisions, but you know at the end of it, as you walk away, you understand why he did what he did.”

Although work as a judge carries its own distinct set of rules, Fairchild said his life didn’t change that dramatically.

For example, in some circumstances it can be considered inappropriate or a conflict of interest for a judge to be good friends with a lawyer, Fairchild said. But, he added with a chuckle, he was never all that close to very many lawyers anyway.

Plus Fairchild said he has never been a big drinker. He limits himself to one glass of wine (or one margarita) per sitting.

For the most part, however, Fairchild said he’s been free to do as he pleased, spending time with his family, traveling, practicing photography and using his boat down south.

Which is not to say he hasn’t kept busy in Lawrence.

During his tenure as a judge and as the district’s chief judge, Kittel said, Fairchild has tackled many issues.

These days courtrooms in Douglas County all enjoy television screens, cameras for video conferences, audio and court reporting equipment and more.

Such was not always the case, Kittel said.

“He’s the one who really got our courtrooms up to snuff with technology,” she said.

It’s an effort that constantly saves the courts both time and resources, she said.

Branson echoed Kittel’s comments, noting that Fairchild was the first judge in the district to have a digital courtroom. Something that quickly spread to the rest of the district.

“Trials have become such a visual thing for people,” Branson said. “Jurors and participants expect so much more than just people talking. Now they want to be able to see evidence, to look at the scene, to have diagrams.”

Since he was appointed the district’s chief judge in 2002, Fairchild said he has traveled around the country, trained other chief judges, addressed social justice issues like wrongful convictions and taught at KU’s law school.

He has penned legal articles, served on boards, councils and committees and presented on topics ranging from contested guardianships to the admissibility of technology in court.

For Fairchild’s retirement celebration, Kittel said she plans to say a few words.

“I think they will be shocked to see how much he’s done,” she said. “He’s just so unassuming.”

“A quiet trailblazer,” she added. “He doesn’t toot his own horn.”

And while Fairchild certainly made his mark both in and out of the courtroom, Kittel said he’ll also be missed behind the scenes.

As chief judge, Fairchild was not only responsible for maintaining a full case load, but he was also in charge of ensuring the courthouse’s operations ran smoothly on a day-to-day basis, Kittel said. Among other things, his open-door policy and approachable demeanor helped to make it possible.

“Anyone who needed him, he’d stop and lend you his time,” she added. “He always had good advice, whether it was personal or on cases.”

Over his career Fairchild has made a point to be available to everybody, Kittel said. But to her, he has been an invaluable asset and someone who can offer a bit of solidarity considering a sometimes isolating position.

“That is who you go to vent to if you need to, to seek guidance, to discuss legal issues,” she said. “He’s really been a great mentor and kind of guided me through this.”

Though he’s retiring as chief judge, Fairchild will work as a senior judge.

As senior judge, he will be sent across the state, filling in for districts in need. In the position he’ll both be able to venture into new areas of Kansas and also visit old friends made during his career.

Positions as senior judge are “coveted,” Kittel said. “They don’t just give those to everybody.”

Plus, Fairchild said his wife, Marty, will tag along for some of the trips.

“It’s fun to go to other districts,” he said. “And my wife is one of the most supportive human beings that has ever walked the earth. She’s wonderful and she likes to go to different parts of Kansas too, believe it or not.”

In all, Fairchild said he’d like to keep working a bit longer, but not much past 70. With his wife, five sons and 12 grandchildren there’s plenty more he’d like to do yet.

And while Kittel said she and the other judges will dearly miss Fairchild and his experience, there’s a chance he might just be assigned to Douglas County as a senior judge for a time. And that would make the transition a bit easier.

“The biggest thing that we are going to lose is his years of wisdom and his leadership,” Branson said. “It will take some time to replace the knowledge and leadership he brought to the bench.”

Fairchild’s successor has not yet been selected, though three attorneys have been nominated for the spot. They are:

• Amy J. Hanley, an assistant attorney general in the criminal litigation division of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.

• Shon D. Qualseth, an attorney with Thompson Ramsdell Qualseth & Warner, P.A.

• Bethany J. Roberts, an attorney with Barber Emerson, L.C.

The finalists were selected by the Seventh Judicial District Nominating Commission and forwarded to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who will select Fairchild’s replacement.