COLUMBIA — Judge Gene Hamilton is hearing his last jury trial.
The veteran circuit judge for the 13th Judicial Circuit is wrapping up a career that spans 28 years on the bench and more than 500 cases with a retirement reception Friday in Fulton.
But there’s still a looming question: Who will replace him?
“I have no idea,” Hamilton said Thursday.
Neither, apparently, does anyone else outside the governor’s office. Gov. Jay Nixon will select Hamilton’s replacement, but there’s no word on whether the appointment will come before Hamilton leaves his post on Sept. 30.
“We are certainly aware of the impending date,” said Scott Holste, Nixon’s press secretary. “Our goal is to make sure the people of that circuit are served in a continuous manner.”
Hamilton, 67, said that after nearly three decades on the bench, he’s become tired of the grind and of putting up with a state budget that in recent years has been in “horrible shape.”
Missouri’s circuit judges received a raise of 3 percent in 2008, and their salary has remained flat since, said Gary Waint, deputy state courts administrator.
Retiring judges sometimes stay on as senior judges to hear cases from time to time. Hamilton said he won’t be doing this; the state’s budget for senior judges was cut in half this fiscal year to $123,000.
Instead, Hamilton, the judge who in 1989 presided over the state’s first case to accept DNA evidence, will begin conducting arbitration mediation for Fulton law firm Riley and Dunlap.
About 400 people are expected to be at Hamilton’s retirement reception Friday at Westminster College in Fulton, said Thomas Dunlap, event co-chair and a partner at the firm Hamilton will be joining.
The speaker list reads like a who’s who of Missouri’s law community. Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price, Missouri Bar Association President H.A. "Skip" Walther, Senior Circuit Judge Frank Conley, Boone County Bar Association President Thomas Schneider and Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Sterner are among the speakers.
Former Gov. Roger Wilson will also speak.
While lawyers and politicians are known for their ability to wax poetic, Dunlap said all speakers were asked to keep remarks to a brief five minutes.
It’s fitting for a judge known for efficiency in his courtroom.
“He ran the courtroom like a business,” Dunlap said. “You get there early and worked all day. He respected the time that jurors took to devote to the system.”
Hamilton resigned as presiding judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit on March 26. He had originally announced he would step down as circuit judge on June 30, but he is extending his stay through September because of a nuance of election law.
If he had retired in June, his successor would have been elected in the November election from candidates picked by the Democratic and Republican central committees, Hamilton said. Because his new retirement date is so close to the election, his replacement will be chosen instead by the governor, the selection process Hamilton said he prefers.
Associate Circuit Judge Cary Augustine also is retiring this year. Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Sterner is running unopposed for the seat and will take Augustine’s place on Jan. 1.
As for Hamilton, he's still awaiting word on his replacement as he presides over what he believes is his last case: the trial of 16-year-old Damien Davis, who is facing charges of first-degree assault, armed criminal action and attempted first-degree robbery in a December shooting at the Conley Road Walmart. The trial had not yet concluded Wednesday.
Conley said Hamilton is a thoughtful person and a knowledgeable judge. “He really is what we who are judges would say is a judge’s judge.”