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District judge retires after 22 years

District judge McKeon hangs up his robe this November

After 22 years as a state district judge in a three-county district, Judge John C. McKeon will hang up his robe in November.

"I've tried to do my job studiously, hardworking and timely and confidently throughout this entire tenure," he said.

For McKeon, the decision to retire as the district judge in Blaine, Phillips and Valley counties wasn't necessarily an easy one, but "it was just time."

McKeon grew up in Malta, went to school at Gonzaga University and University of Montana, now lives in Malta and plans to stay in Malta after retiring.

McKeon was in the Malta courthouse Tuesday, talking about his years as a judge and his fast-approaching retirement.

Walking into the 100-year-old courtroom, McKeon's grin widened as he pointed out the intricate designs on the ceiling trim and the hanging scales-of-justice-like chandeliers that light the room.

He said that the courtroom had been preserved, for the most part, since it had been built, down to the mint-green-colored walls.

"This one's got the old-time flavor to it," he said.

McKeon said he liked the time he served as a judge because he liked serving the public, the challenges of the job and, especially, the law.

"It's one of those careers where you are providing a service to the public. It's a lot like any professional career, for example, a medical doctor," he said. "You rely on the individual to have a certain amount of training and skills that they can come back with and assist the public with resolving issues."

On his office wall hang worn copies of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He said he got them from his dad, who was a lawyer, when he was a practicing lawyer himself. Before being a judge, McKeon spent 20 years in front of the bench, mostly as a prosecutor.

There are rights that are worth protecting, McKeon said. And judges who are fully aware of those rights and are willing to display courage at times to ensure those rights are being protected are also needed.

McKeon touched on some of the intricacies of the job.

He said the law is not always black and white, that it sometimes requires interpretation.

"We try to interpret it consistently, so that there is a matter of precedence out there," he said. "It's always a challenge out there because every case that comes before you has its own facts."

But as gray as it can sometimes be, McKeon said he trusts the law-making process and believes it's still one of the best, mainly for one reason.

"Your courts don't make the laws. Your people do. Your citizens make the laws. And that's it. ... It's still one of the best systems in the world," he said.

McKeon said that being a judge can be taxing.

"A lot of these cases are emotional cases, cases that carry with them a certain amount of stress," he said. "There's something that might weigh with you for some time, until you might make a ruling."

He said some cases had certainly come home with him, and that he thought about them, but a judge must also move on - the ruminating must come to an end at a certain point.

"Once I make a decision, I've got to move on. That's what the appellate courts are for," he said.

For McKeon, one of the more unpleasant aspects of the job is the isolation. He wasn't able to join certain clubs, like the golf club, or a political organization. But he joked about that, saying he doesn't golf anyway, and he doesn't feel like he's missing too much by not being part of a political organization. Other things, however, he might wish he could do.

"I had to step back from community affairs. ... I don't want to create any additional conflicts. ... My sport is fishing," he said. "I can go out on the lake and fish pretty much by myself."

When first running for the office in 1994, McKeon said he came up with a list of C words, to go with his middle initial, to help the people remember what type of judge he would be.

"I'll try to be courteous, compassionate, competent, considerate, conscious, consistent," he said. "They're all C words, but they're all principles that are good for any judge."

A lot of things have changed since that 1994 campaign, he added.

"We're dealing with new issues that exist in society today that never existed even 10 years ago. Technology issues, privacy-related issues," McKeon said.

He said there are also more cases involving families, particularly families that are parenting young children and some of the struggles they're having doing so. A good share is attributed to the increase in drug activity over the last 20 years, he said.

The law, then, changes as well - "the justice system is always evolving, that's the nature of the system" - as it adjusts to serve and uphold society, McKeon said.

He said he wanted to point out that he was grateful for the people who had served with him all these years, especially his "right-hand man," court administrator Cathy King, who has been with him his entire stint as a judge.

He said he probably will miss the job, "some," and there might be a slight adjustment period, but he's looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren, traveling with his wife, devoting more time to his hobbies - woodworking and fishing - and reading. As much as he's read throughout the years, McKeon said, he still enjoys reading, particularly history, and even more specifically, Montana history.


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