Phelps County Democrats Tuesday night decided to submit the name of former Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Kenneth G. Clayton to Gov. Jay Nixon as their preference for his appointee to be the successor of Associate Circuit Judge Bill Hickle.
"We're going to submit both names with a preference for Ken Clayton," Phelps County Democrat Committee Chairman Paul Long announced after the committee heard separate presentations from Clayton and attorney Kristopher D. Crews, held question-and-answer sessions and then conducted a closed session to make the selection.
Long said the decision was based on Clayton's legal experience and his lifelong Rolla commitment.
No similar selection to be turned over to the governor has been made by the Phelps County Republican Central Committee.
The meeting at the Phelps County Courthouse Multi-Purpose Room came after Hickle, elected in November to succeed retiring Circuit Judge Tracy Storie in the 25th Judicial Circuit, submitted a notice of his resignation, effective at the end of this month, to Phelps County Circuit Clerk Carol Bennett, Long told the Daily News after the meeting.
Bennett then notified the chairmen of the two political committees, Democratic and Republican, who had 10 days to call a meeting to make a recommendation to the governor, Long said.
Republican Chairman Bob May told the Daily News that he is still waiting to hear from Gov. Nixon's office. "The only contact I've had (with that office) is the contact I've made," he said. In that contact, a spokesman told him there was no deadline yet.
"Our job is to submit a name to Gov. Nixon," Long said Tuesday night. "This is not aslam dunk," he continued, for the governor will also be reviewing applications made independently by qualified individuals interested in the appointment. "We hope he'll take the recommendation of the county committee," Long said.
Before hearing from Clayton and Crews, Long said there were three options: make a single recommendation, submit the names of both nominees or submit both names in order of preference.
"With or without our recommendation, you do need to fill out an application with the governor's office," Long told the two attorneys. That is also the process for any candidate applying independently; Long said he did not know of anyone who has made such an application.
In alphabetical order, Clayton gave the first presentation.
"I would appreciate your support," he said after distributing his resume. "I would like to be the associate circuit judge of Phelps County."
He said the traits needed are fairness, open-mindedness and a willingness to look at both sides of a situation.
"I'm very capable of doing those things," he said.
Clayton lives in Phelps County but has worked for the Pulaski County prosecutor's office since Feb. 1, 2011, as assistant prosecuting attorney (and as acting prosecutor since May 1 of this year during the office-holder's deployment to Kuwait).
Page 2 of 3 - "I would like to emulate (Pulaski County Associate Circuit) Judge (Gregory) Warren," Clayton said. "He will listen to absolutely everything anybody wants to say within reason."
This associate circuit judgeship has traditionally been the family court, small claims and civil collections court, Clayton said.
People in the courtroom, particularly in civil cases and in cases involving children, need to have that ability to be heard, he said.
"Some people just want to be heard," he said."It's important to let them be heard."
Clayton also said a role model is his father, retired Maries County Associate Circuit Judge John Clayton.
Kenneth Clayton said it is important that a judge be certain that defendants follow his rulings, particularly when the defendants receive probation and are treated leniently with conditions.
Too often, Clayton said, he has seen defendants make promises that they seem to forget as soon as they leave the courtroom. When a judge does nottake action in those cases, it undermines the credibility of the court system.
This is particularly wrong in civil cases involving children, for "the needs of children need to be looked after."
Clayton noted that his views of such matters have changed since he began working in the area in 1996 as a public defender and then in 1998 when he was first elected as Phelps County prosecuting attorney.
Since then he and his wife have adopted two children and also given birth to one child.
"That definitely changes your perspective," he said, adding that he believes a judge who doesn't have those life experiences can do harm to children rather than help them through his rulings.
Clayton said, "The juvenile court is as important, or maybe more important, than adult court."
In response to a question from a Democrat committee member, Clayton said that he is qualified to serve as circuit judge, a job that will also open soon for Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield, who has been appointed, and "I would be happy to serve in that role, but I think Judge Warren is the better choice."
Clayton responded to another question about the highlight of his career by reviewing a verdict of guilty in a first-degree murder case during his tenure as Phelps County prosecuting attorney.
"Is this job going to be a two-year thing and you're on to something else?" another committee member asked.
"Not if I can help it," Clayton said. "My wife and I have discussed this, and if I'm appointed, we will run again. And I say 'we' because running for election involves the whole family."
Clayton said he would continue to run for re-election, no matter who challenges him.
In his presentation, Crews was complimentary of Clayton. "I came to Phelps County because of Ken Clayton," he said, noting that Clayton hired him as an assistant prosecutor. "He is a man of integrity," Crews said of Clayton.
Page 3 of 3 - Crews said the Democratic committee should consider his electability.
"Last year, I met a lovely young lady, Amy Aaron," he said. She is currently a nursing student, and the two plan to be married before she graduates next spring. "I want her to have the name Crews on her diploma," he said with a grin.
Miss Aaron is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bill Aaron Jr. "He knows a lot of people," Crews said of Bill Aaron Jr. "That could pull Republican votes."
Although both he and Clayton have similar legal experiences, "I do have that advantage," Crews said.
Asked about the highlight of his career, Crews said it was obtaining a legal identification number with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This allows him to practice law as a patent attorney.
Another highlight was his recent role as a defense lawyer in a murder trial in Phelps County "that I was victorious in." he said.
Originally from Steele in the Bootheel, Crews came to Phelps County from Lebanon where he worked for the Hutson law firm.
During his tenure with Clayton from 2004-2006, Crews said he worked on "a baker's dozen" of criminal trials.
He now works as an associate with the Steelman, Gaunt & Horsefield law firm in Rolla.
Asked how it is to work as a Democrat in a Republican law firm, Crews said, "It's not that bad," generating some laughter. Crews noted that David Steelman has the respect of Gov. Nixon, who recently appointed him to a state board.
Moreover, the law practice is primarily in personal injury, which is "more of a Democratic interest."
Asked if he would stick with the job of associate circuit judge if appointed, Crews said, "I I'm appointed, I have no intent of leaving at all."
He said he would run against any challenger, including Mark Calvert, another attorney who has apparently applied independently with Nixon.