Chenault proved an 'old school' judge could be an innovator

This Wednesday, Madison County will lay to rest one of its most distinguished citizens, retired Circuit Judge James S. Chenault. He died Thursday, Jan. 16, at age 96, after several weeks of declining health.

A towering figure in the 25th Circuit that includes Madison and Clark counties, he stood out among Kentucky jurists for how rarely his decisions were reversed on appeal, said his daughter, Judge Jean Chenault Logue. She followed him into the legal profession and onto the 25th Circuit bench.

Chenault gained a national reputation after his court was first in the United States to rely solely on video recordings as its official record in 1982. His successful demonstration of the technology won a $100,000 grant from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government to help implement the system in other Kentucky Courts.

Later, the judge traveled nationally to explain how the system worked and encouraged other jurisdictions to adopt it.

Although transcriptions of the recordings can be made available, the judge noted that a video record includes facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and other elements not evident in a transcript. Such features could be important if a defendant wanted to challenge how a judge or attorneys conducted a trial.

With video cameras in the courtroom, the judge also arranged for jury trials to be carried live on a local cable television channel. He believed citizens had a right to see their judicial system in action, and it was important for them to know how well it functioned, his daughter said.

Having court proceedings cablecast live proved a mixed blessing for the judge's daughter, however. As a young attorney beginning practice, her father could sit at home and watch her in court. Afterwards, to her chagrin as well as her benefit, the retired judge would critique her performance and suggest ways to improve, she said.

With a reputation as an “old school” judge steeped in history, many were surprised when Chenault led the way in adopting modern technology, Logue said. However, he had learned from history that the court system was slow in updating its operations. The courts were among the last institutions to accept typewriters, he once remarked. And he insisted that his court update its operations.

Some attorneys, especially older members of the profession, did not like the innovation, said J.T. Gilbert, a senior member of the Madison County Bar Association and a past president of the Kentucky Trial Lawyers Association.

The recordings allowed the court to move at a faster pace and avoided delays when court reporters called in sick or were otherwise unable to be in court, he said.

Among the judge's many formal accolades were the Outstanding Trial Judge Award of the Kentucky Trial Academy of Trial Attorneys, the Chief Justice’s Special Award and induction into the University of Kentucky Law Alumni Association Hall of Fame. He also was named an Outstanding Alumnus of EKU and was the first inductee into the Model Laboratory School Hall of Fame.

Even after winning acclaim as a judge and becoming nationally known for courtroom modernization, Chenault told his daughter that his proudest achievement was being commissioned a naval officer and serving in World War II.

He enlisted in the Navy as an apprentice seaman in May 1943 and served aboard the destroyer escort USS Lamons. He then rose to quartermaster, third class. Chenault was selected to return to the states and attended Midshipmen’s School and was commissioned an ensign in a ceremony at New York City's Cathedral of Saint John the Devine. His mother took the train from Richmond to attend.

Returning to the Pacific, he served aboard the USS Topeka and was honorably discharged in 1946 having attained the rank of lieutenant (j.g.).

Chenault was at his shipboard battle station during the amphibious assault of Saipan in mid-June 1944. Called “D-Day in the Pacific” by one historian, the battle was key to securing the Mariana Islands for the Allies. From airstrips in the Marianas, American bombers could reach the Japanese home island, which was the beginning of the end of the Pacific war.

He never forgot those who served and those who died in their country's service.

“Two things my father never failed to do were vote and attend the Memorial Day ceremony at the Richmond Cemetery,” his daughter said. Chenault cast his last ballot in November.

He always thanked those called for jury service for fulfilling their duty as citizens as well as enjoying their rights secured by those who had served in battle.

Portraits of past judges and other figures in local history line the Richmond circuit courtroom walls. The judge loved to take advantage of lulls in court proceedings to tell the audience about the figures depicted in the paintings, some of whom he had known in his youth. Chenault's portrait joined the gallery not long after he retired in 1993 after 27 years on the bench.

He had previously worked as commonwealth’s attorney and city of Richmond prosecutor as well as working in private practice.

Although he expected attorneys to meet high standards, Chenault was patient and encouraging with young attorneys, Gilbert said. And he was encouraging of young women in the law and in other previously male-dominated professions who came to his courtroom as expert witnesses.

Logue said her father never pushed her to follow him, his father and grandfather into the legal profession. However, he was greatly pleased when she did and went on to become a circuit judge, just as he and his grandfather were.

The Chenaults are one of Madison County's oldest families, descended from a Fort Boonesborough settler. They are the Kentucky branch of a French protestant family who to came to America for religious freedom.

The judge also encouraged young news reporters and was always happy to explain fine points of the law and judicial proceedings to them after court was adjourned. In the late 1970s, when this writer first came to Richmond, the city had three radio stations that reported local news as well as the Richmond Register. After court most every Friday, reporters from all four news outlets would gravitate to the judge's office where he would regale them with colorful stories of the court's and the county's history.

The judge's love of local history also was evident in his membership of several organizations.

A charter member of both the Madison County Civil War Roundtable and the Battle of Richmond Association, Chenault was influential in helping preserve land where important parts of the 1862 Battle of Richmond were fought.

He loved to tell friends about his father taking his family on Sunday afternoon outings where he pointed out battle sites around the Mt. Zion Church south of Richmond. He included that memory in the introduction he wrote for “When the Ripe Pears Fell,” the first book-length account of the battle, authored by his friend, the late D. Warren Lambert, a Berea College history professor.

A long-time member of the Madison County Historical Society, the judge also was involved in erecting a new grave marker for the society's founder, 19th century newspaper editor and amateur historian French Tipton.

A graduate of Eastern Kentucky University and its Model Laboratory School, Chenault was proud and supportive of his alma mater. He loved attending the university's men's and women's basketball games as well as football games, usually accompanied by his grandson James Logue.

And the teams returned their most stalwart fan's loyalty and affection. One year, the entire EKU women's basketball team showed up at the judge's home to deliver his season tickets.

Retired EKU president Doug Whitlock and his wife Joanne were traveling abroad when they learned of Chenault's passing.

“I regret that we are not home to express our condolences to Judge Jean Logue and her family and show our considerable respects,” he wrote in a message.

“I’ve always thought not enough here locally had a full appreciation for just how much Judge Chenault was respected throughout the nation.

“His was a towering intellect and brought incredible wisdom to the bench.

“EKU had no more distinguished alumnus, or one who loved Eastern more. He was convinced that Eastern’s ownership of Elmwood was the best way to honor Miss Emma Watt’s wish that the property be preserved. He came up with the idea for the combination gift/purchase through which the EKU Foundation acquired the property.

“I visited with him at Telford Terrace a few weeks ago. My friend was his vintage self,” Whitlock said. “Our community has lost one if its leading citizens, and I’ve lost a friend.”

Chenault's obituary was published Jan. 18 in The Register. His visitation is today (Tuesday, Jan. 21) from 4 to 8 p.m. at Richmond's First Presbyterian Church. His funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, with burial in the Richmond Cemetery.

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