When a 16-year-old who had spent his life in the foster care system wanted to get his driver’s license, Judge Larry McKinney helped make it happen.
McKinney had been a part of the teen’s life since he was a toddler, when he decided the boy should be removed from an abusive home and put into foster care. Over the years, the boy would come to hearings to tell the judge how he was doing.
When he turned 16, he was excited to get his license, but faced a huge roadblock: he needed his parents to sign responsibility for him. So McKinney crafted a court order specifically for the boy so he could get his license.
“This was the world to this young man at age 16, who already feels at a disadvantage with no mom and dad. He stepped in and figured out how to get this done,” said Steve Huddleston, a Franklin attorney who has been friends with McKinney for more than 40 years.
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Huddleston and McKinney met when they were both young lawyers, representing clients in Greenwood City Court. McKinney was practicing in Edinburgh, after painting houses to help supplement his income when he started his practice, Huddleston said.
Through the years, as both men continued their practices, and McKinney became a county and then federal judge, the two remained close.
McKinney’s death this week at age 73 came as a huge shock to Huddleston, and others in the legal community, Huddleston said.
“Johnson County lost a great citizen,” Huddleston said.
“I will miss him deeply, he was a great friend.”
McKinney quickly became a well-respected attorney in Johnson County. So when the spot of Johnson County Circuit Court judge opened up, he decided to run and had plenty of support. But he had never been involved with party politics, and his opponent was well known within the Democratic Party, Huddleston said.
McKinney won, and became the leader of one of the county’s busiest courts. At the time, attorneys could ask to transfer cases to another county, and many selected Johnson County Circuit Court, where the previous judge had years of experience. That meant McKinney quickly took on a heavy caseload.
He quickly built a reputation for being fair, even if attorneys didn’t win, and the tradition of transferring cases here continued.
“Quality lawyers in big cases in Indianapolis waited in line to have McKinney try their cases. And a lot of them lost cases,” Huddleston said.
“But they always knew he would be fair.”
McKinney was the first person in Cynthia Emkes’ life who told her she should consider a judicial career. He was the first judge she appeared before as a paralegal, before she started law school.
When he was Circuit Court Judge in March 1987, he created the juvenile and family court magistrate position, and appointed Emkes. Later, he would swear her in as the judge of Superior Court 2. The two remained friends for the next 36 years, while McKinney served as Circuit Court judge, federal judge and then senior judge.
“When Judge McKinney appointed me in 1987, he impressed many times to me that the most important quality a judge can have is humility,” Emkes said. “He truly practiced daily what he preached.”
When he swore her into office, he would speak about being humble or pull Emkes aside later to remind her of the importance of staying humble.
“From the first day I met him, he has remained one of my greatest mentors and role models,” Emkes said. “I’m certain he was a mentor to many.”
“I’ve carried on that tradition, and will now consider it his legacy to me. I too speak of humbleness as a quality a judge must possess.”
When Peter Nugent was sworn in on Monday as the new judge of Superior 2, replacing Emkes due to her retirement, she spoke of remaining humble.
“When I think of Larry McKinney, I’m reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power,'” Emkes said.
McKinney worked a heavy caseload, including multiple murder cases, but always wanted to keep local cases that he felt were important too, everything from child abuse and neglect cases to divorces, Huddleston said.
“He just did an absolutely fantastic job,” Huddleston said.
“When you would try a case in front of him, uniformly, clients always said he is a fair guy. That is quite a statement.”
And if anyone ever wondered how he kept up, they simply needed to stop into the courthouse, where McKinney could be found at the start of each morning and late into the day.
Huddleston remembers a case that came in at 4 p.m. on a Friday, when the courthouse had mostly emptied for the weekend. A young boy had been taken to Johnson Memorial Hospital with a large cut, and the boy’s father left to go to work at Arvin and couldn’t be reached. The boy needed surgery and would die without it, but the surgeon couldn’t perform the procedure without the father’s OK.
With his fingers crossed, Huddleston ran to McKinney’s court and found him in his office. Within an hour, McKinney had drafted a court order allowing the surgeon to take responsibility for the boy and perform the life-saving surgery, Huddleston said.
Huddleston, who represented the welfare department for 20 years, made regular phone calls to McKinney at all hours to get his authorization to make decisions for children in abuse and neglect decisions, and he was always there to listen, weigh the facts and make the call, Huddleston said.
McKinney could have easily delegated those cases to the juvenile court, but he didn’t want to, Huddleston said.
“McKinney said, ‘That’s important. I want to be involved in it,'” Huddleston said.
Emkes said McKinney was one of the most powerful men she’s ever known, if power is measured by a combination of position, influence, intelligence, eloquence and wit.
“Yet, without a doubt, he was one of the most modest, humble men I’ve ever known,” Emkes said. “His legacy is of course his extraordinary lifetime commitment to the judiciary, but just as important to him I know is the legacy of his character, his humility and his mentoring.”
He was most proud of his family, she said. He treasured his loved ones.
People who worked with him will recall his wit and sense of humor, she said. She remembered an instance after jury selection for a trial, when McKinney calmed anxious jurors by asking them if they were convinced that they were “so fair that they couldn’t stand themselves,” Emkes said.
“He was an inspiration in countless ways to many in the legal community during his lifelong career, and although he will be greatly missed, his legacy will be remembered forever,” Emkes said.
You would rarely find McKinney in his robe at the courthouse, sometimes even he was on the bench, Huddleston said.
“It wasn’t about the title. It was about what he could do to help these people,” he said.
His level of involvement in cases was deep. Huddleston remembers going to the law library one night during a jury trial to do research for a case. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see McKinney, who was also doing research.
When a child who had been adopted wanted to find his biological parents — a case that was rare at that time — Huddleston remembers talking with McKinney about wishing he knew what the biological mother would want to do. McKinney knew, because he had tracked her down, and was ready to make his ruling based on her wishes, Huddleston said.
When McKinney made the decision to apply for the federal judge position, he had tons of support from the county, but many wondered if he had enough recognition to get it, since he hadn’t held any other political position. And then, he was picked.
“It spoke to the reputation he had created of being a fair guy and every lawyer says, ‘I want to try my case in front of him,'” Huddleston said.
“He was considered one of the best. He listened, you never felt like he wasn’t paying attention.”
McKinney was likely one of the only judges who had a lighter caseload when he went to federal court, Huddleston said. His first case there was a dog bite case, a fact they chuckled at, compared to what he had been handling in Johnson County.
And even when McKinney became a senior judge, meaning he could set the times and days he wanted to work and the cases he would take while still receiving full pay, he still continued to work at least three days a week, Huddleston said.
“That was the nature of the guy. The guy that says, ‘I want to help people,'” Huddleston said.