Presiding Judge Kenneth Pratte’s law day on Friday began just like any other law day.
Circuit Marshall Phill Horn had the courtroom full of attorneys and defendants to rise as Judge Pratte entered his second-floor courtroom of the St. Francois County Courthouse to take the bench. Without pause, Judge Pratte turned to the American flag behind him and asked the audience to join with him in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance — something he has done every court session since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A line of seven attorneys waited to his right, eager to dispose of his cases. There was a crowd of defendants, a few dozen wearing orange jail jumpsuits, waiting for him to get through a 34-page docket consisting of charges ranging from child support to robbery charges.
It seemed like any other law day. But it wasn’t.
Directly in front of him two long-time clerks choked back tears. They were sad and sentimental about Judge Pratte’s last law day ever.
Judge Pratte’s six-year term doesn’t expire until 2018, but mandatory retirement at age 70 in four months would force him to retire.
“There’s no point in dragging it out four more months,” Judge Pratte explained.
So Friday was his last law day.
Judge Pratte has been a circuit court judge for the 24th circuit for 32 years. He is believed to be the longest-tenured circuit judge ever for the circuit.
He took the bench when Perry County was still part of the circuit with St. Francois, Madison, Ste. Genevieve and Washington counties. Now Perry is lumped in with Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties in the 32nd Circuit.
Of those 32 years, he’s been the presiding judge of the circuit for 30 years. He said that is a bit unusual because the presiding judge position (which comes with no extra pay) is normally rotated each year in other circuits and courts, but the other judges in the 24th were content with letting Judge Pratte keep the added administration duties.
Over the years, Judge Pratte’s criminal court dockets have easily quadrupled with him having up to 70-page dockets on a St. Francois County law day. A few years ago, he added a third St. Francois County law day a month to help with the growing list of criminal cases. He even changed the start time of his law days from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. to get an extra hour in.
He already has some cases scheduled for trial in July of 2015. He remembers when he used to be able to schedule trials a month and a half out.
Judge Pratte recalled with a bit of humor how attorneys in a civil case requested four weeks for a trial. He gave them four days. The attorneys attempted to appeal that but Judge Pratte won the battle. In St. Francois County, murder cases are typically tried in two to three days.
“We are just really busy,” he said.
So busy that — after 32 years — he wonders where the time has gone.
Those who don’t know the man very well, may not know Judge Pratte is a veteran. While some went to great lengths to avoid being drafted, he enlisted. At the age of 17, a senior in high school, he enlisted in the Marines and started boot camp that August after high school. He felt it was his duty.
He was in the Marines three years and spent one year of that in Vietnam, encountering the Viet Cong. Immediately after completing his three-year enlistment, he began taking classes at Mineral Area College. He graduated from both high school and MAC at the head of his class. He went on to the University of Missouri-Columbia, earning a bachelor’s degree.
While he always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, law school was expensive and he needed to earn a living. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked a short time for General Electric and then as a probation officer in Dexter and then in Farmington.
He returned to Mizzou for law school, committing as an ensign with the JAG Corps. Plans changed when he was walking through campus and noticed an ad on the bulletin board for an A-V rated law firm in Fredericktown that he was familiar with as a probation officer. Schnapp, Graham and Reid were looking for a young associate and so he inquired. He was hired on, and through that, also served in a capacity as a Madison County assistant prosecuting attorney.
He then was hired by Gary Stevenson as an assistant prosecuting attorney for St. Francois County. He did some private practice on the side. He then partnered with John Williams in Williams and Pratte before the circuit court judge seat opened up. He decided to run for office and try out one term to see if he liked it and if he could do the job well.
“I just don’t know where the time went,” said Judge Pratte, who faced opposition only in his first election and in the 2000 election.
He said it’s been a great job and is forever grateful for those who allowed him to hold the job 32 years.
Judge Pratte is grateful to a lot of people who have made his job so much easier, including three of the people he’s appointed: Horn who has been circuit marshal 18 years; Nancy Wilson, who has been presiding judge secretary for 20 years; and Rachelle Ankrom, his court reporter for the last 27 years. He said he has worked with some really great law enforcement officers/bailiffs, clerks, probation and parole officers, and attorneys.
A few cases over the years stick out. Two of his cases are being used in judicial college for training — Christy Lynn Jaco (a criminal child abuse case that went to the Supreme Court for newly introduced bifurcated trial guidelines) and Debra Southers (a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Farmington involving liability of police officers). Judge Pratte explained that when there is no legal precedence, judges have to fall back on common sense. That was key in the Jaco case.
Judge Pratte has presided over two death penalty cases — one from another county where the jury sentenced the man to death and another where jurors sentenced the man to life without parole.
He feels now is a good time to retire. He said at age 69, it’s getting harder to keep up with the dockets and the line of seven or so defendants’ plea and sentencings which takes a little more than an hour.
Judge Pratte said the biggest “sign from heaven” is that the circuit will be moving to e-filing next year. He’s not a big fan of technology.
He is also looking forward to not having to hear and see evidence of devastating cases such as child abuse.
Other judges in the circuit will take turns hearing cases on his docket. Judge Pratte hopes that doesn’t have to go on very long. He sent his letter of resignation to the governor in October, asking for a quick appointment so the circuit doesn’t get further behind.
A retirement party was held for Judge Pratte in his St. Francois County courtroom on Dec. 8. It was attended by a number of county officials, friends, family, courthouse staff, and attorneys.
What does he plan to do in retirement?
Judge Pratte admits he doesn’t really have any hobbies. He enjoys reading for relaxation. He and his wife, Kay, plan to travel.
Associate Commissioner Patrick Mullins
“We hate that he is retiring but he has come to the point in his life when it’s time to retire. He will be missed and he has been a faithful employee for the citizens of St. Francois County and we hate to lose him.”
St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin
“It was an honor for me to practice the years that I have had in front of him and he was always what I considered a fair judge to everyone who appeared in front of him. Just to have somebody who was so experienced and knowledgeable in law that was so approachable was truly my honor to practice in front of him. He will be sorely missed at the courthouse and even though he may be glad to be gone at the end of his time we will all miss having him here.”
Attorney Joe Goff Sr.
“I’m sad to see him retire because he has been a very good judge and he has provided a lot of stability to the circuit judge position. Having practiced law in St. Louis and then moving here I think some lawyers take for granted how difficult a judge can sometimes make a case. Judge Pratte has never done that, he has always been very accommodating and respectful of all the lawyers involved in the cases. He is a good guy and I am sad that he is leaving.”
Former Judge Stanley “Stan” J. Murphy
“I hate to see him go, I have watched him all these years. We were on the bench together for about 24 years and I think he has done a really good job. I thought he has had really good judgment all these years. He and I both always had the same outlook, but I really hate to see him retire in one way. On the other hand he deserves it. He has been there longer than I was and he deserves a great retirement. I hope it is a long and happy retirement.”
Ste. Genevieve Sheriff Gary Stolzer
“We have all always thought he was an awesome judge and he is always professional. He cares about what he was doing, it’s always been obvious the 14 years I’ve been sheriff that he is definitely been in the right position. He is going to be missed a lot and hopefully somebody can fill his shoes to keep things running on the way he keeps it going.”
St. Francois County Sheriff Dan Bullock
“We’ve always worked well together. He’s always been receptive to things to do with the sheriff’s department and has helped us out.”
Teresa Ressel is the assistant managing editor for the Daily Journal and can be reached by calling 573-518-3613 or email@example.com