Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, one of the state’s most esteemed public servants, is wrapping up a long and distinguished career at the end of this month.
Cunningham was elected to the Supreme Court in November 2006, representing the 24-county First Supreme Court District in far western Kentucky.
Ten years is a good average tenure on the court, given the toll it takes on you laying your heart out in every case. I made it 10. Bill made it 12! I’m gonna miss him up there. And – no matter what part of Kentucky you live in – so are you!
It’s a rare human institution that’s anything but systematic and mechanical in its endeavors and applications – but “Bill’s Court” had a “heart” – a really big one! Bill Cunningham!
To be sure, there were – and are – other “good hearts” up there, and some of the sharpest legal minds in Kentucky. But, Bill’s “heart” overshadowed them all – including mine. How’d that happen?
He grew up in Eddyville, far western Kentucky, the fifth child in a family living in government housing 200 yards from the brooding, gray walls of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, Kentucky’s only maximum-security prison. As he once said, “I came within 200 yards of being born in a prison!” His dad worked nearby as a “riverman” and later, as a “lock supervisor.” His cousin was the first guard killed there by inmates in October 1923. According to Bill, “he first went to prison as a small boy, acting as a bat boy for a local baseball team.” “That’s right,” he often quipped, “I was in and out of prison several times as a juvenile!”
Bill would go on to write seven fabulous books on Kentucky history, one of which, “Castle – The Story of a Kentucky Prison,” would memorialize the times, places and people surrounding his cousin’s murder and the attempted breakout at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in late 1923. Of all the authors I read (still), Bill comes the closest in his style to my favorite, James Michener. But, that’s just another side of Bill for another day.
Bill got his bachelor’s degree from Murray State University in 1962, and his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1969. Then, he went to war! He served in the U.S. Army in Germany, Korea and Vietnam! Few know that he served on the Vietnam P.O.W. Commission set up by the Paris Peace Accords to administer and settle prisoner of war issues in Vietnam. Neither do they know he was a passenger on one of the last planes carrying combat veterans out of South Vietnam in 1973. Lot of ole campfire stories there.
Coming back to “the world” – as we “Vietnam Veterans” referred to America then – Bill started his civilian legal career pretty “high on the hog” as Eddyville’s City Attorney. From there, he moved on to the courtroom floors as the state public defender for the gray-walled Kentucky State Penitentiary, which, by the way, still remains in the view from his home today. Next, he was elected as the commonwealth’s attorney for the 56th Judicial District and served as the chief prosecutor there for 12 years. After that, he was elected circuit judge for the same judicial dircuit and served there for another 15 years. “Twenty-seven years” as the chief prosecutor and circuit judge for the western Kentucky counties around the prison. As he often said, “I have a good number of friends behind those brooding gray walls – some of them, I put there.”
Yet, even today, Bill Cunningham can walk through the grounds of the Kentucky State Penitentiary without armed guards. He’s the only judge I know who can – or would! I remember one event during our tenure on the court together when my law clerks asked if they could have a couple of days off to visit Justice Cunningham at his western Kentucky office. When I asked why, they told me they wanted to go inside the Kentucky State Penitentiary with him as several other clerk’s had. I let them go – and listened to their stories about it for several weeks after that. I was impressed; a judge walking, without an armed guard, inside the toughest prison in Kentucky. I wanted to find out why, and I did.
Bill had represented the inmates there as their public defender. He had
prosecuted some there for their crimes as commonwealth’s attorney. He had sent many to that prison upon their convictions. All at separate times and without conflicts. Yet, he never lost sight of their humanity. At all times, he was thoughtful and courteous in his considerations of their cases and persons. He simply respected their rights. He may have been a “hard-nosed prosecutor and circuit judge,” but he learned something growing up – “respect begets respect.”
I’ve even traveled with him to check on some of the inmates he’d sent to prison – if and when he was concerned about something that didn’t seem right. And, I still get a few letters from some of these inmates I’d traveled with him to check on – all too old now to be a danger to anyone but themselves – but they’re still there. Bill, however, still gets a bucket-full of letters every month, generally reminiscing of old times or his last visit. Some he answers, most are forwarded to the appropriate state department head to which they belong. I can even say that one of Bill’s oldest inmates got to keep his “pet bird” that flew into his cell and stayed to become his friend! What kind of person is it that can send you to prison – deservedly so – but you still like him and respect him? And write him? A helluva’ good one, I’m sure.
Yet, there’s more to Bill than just law and prisons. There are very few early morning people in Frankfort who don’t know him personally, from conversations he’s had on the streets with them on his early morning workout walks while attending the regular monthly court week at the Capitol. Bill would always be on the streets in the early morning, before court, in his “Rocky” jogging outfit. Yet, he never passed anyone out there without wanting to get to know them; or even learning the history of a building he’d just noticed. Bill knows the 200-year history of every building in Frankfort. It was so much fun to just walk around town with him in the evening, after court, and listen to the history he’d discovered about this and that historical building or meet one of his new friends. What a mind!
He was the same way inside the Capitol. No matter what your job – how high or how low – you never passed Bill Cunningham without getting a personal greeting and a “how you doing” question. And, I guess that’s why he’s the only justice I know who has ever received a personal – “going away – we’ll miss you” – gift from the Capitol cleaning staff. That’s Bill. He gives respect – and he gets it!
In closing, I guess a person’s family is the best demonstration of how one lived his life – probably the best footprints you can ever leave behind. In this respect, Bill – and his lovely wife, Paula – raised five boys in rural western Kentucky, all without having a TV in their home. They still don’t have one! IPhones, computers and laptops, yes; but no TV. One son is a congressman, one’s an educator, one’s an ocean-going ship captain, another a yacht entrepreneur, and then there’s a fabulous Nashville singer/songwriter named “Luke.” What else can you say?
And, that’s why we’re all gonna miss this “bright, big-hearted” fella up there in Frankfort! A “people’s hero” for Kentucky, if there ever was one.
Will T. Scott served 10 years as a Kentucky Supreme Court justice.