Stepping down from the bench

Friday, December 29, 2006

After three terms in office, Barry County Associate Circuit Judge Michael Garrett will retire on Dec. 31.

As Garrett steps down from the bench, he plans to step into the role of doting grandfather. Garrett said his plans to retire were, in part, sparked by the arrival of two grandsons over the past two years.

"I want to try to catch up with Phyllis (Garrett's wife) who is way ahead of me in grandparent time," said Garrett. "I plan to make a nuisance of myself at my grandsons' homes."

Grandson Silas, the son of Kelly and Elizabeth Garrett, lives in Columbia, and grandson Elijah, the son of Pat and Jessica Garrett, lives in St. Louis.

Although Garrett is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, he awaits his retirement with mixed emotions.

"I've never been out of work before," joked Garrett. "I turned 65 this year and that is a good age at which to retire. I still enjoy being a judge and it's still a source of satisfaction for me, but there's just a time when you need to move on."

Garrett, a Republican, was elected to the judgeship in 1994. He succeeded J. Edward Sweeney, who made a successful run for circuit court judge. During his first campaign, Garrett had opposition in both the primary and general elections, but in the next two elections, he ran unopposed.

Before being elected judge, Garrett, a 1967 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Law, had a successful private practice in Monett for a number of years. He also served as Barry County prosecuting attorney from 1971 to 1972.

Garrett spent four years in state government under Governor Kit Bond. He served as supervisor of liquor control in 1973 and then became the state's first director of public safety in 1974. He remained director until Bond's term as governor ended in 1976. Garrett then returned to Monett to practice law until he ran for judge in 1994.

Upon retirement, Garrett plans to take "senior status," which means he would be available to be assigned to cases in the circuit as senior judge. This is a resource that Barry County took advantage of when Garrett first took office.

"Back when I was the only judge in the associate court and had a large caseload, we had senior judges assigned to assist with the caseload," said Garrett. "It would provide me with a way to stay active."

If Garrett were to return to private practice, he would be forced to give up his judicial designation.

Over the past 12 years, under Garrett's tenure, the associate court has undergone many changes. One of the most obvious improvements occurred in the area of facilities.

"There is no comparison between the present court facilities we now enjoy and the facilities we endured back in 1995 when I started," said Garrett. "We had a single associate courtroom, one judge and three clerks and absolutely no security."

Initially, Garrett combatted crowded conditions and the lack of security by moving out of the judge's existing office and converting a storage room into judge's chambers. The old office was then renovated to provide the clerks with their own office space, which included a glass window that served as a divider between the clerks and the public.

The move from the old courthouse to the new Barry County Judicial Center brought even further changes for the local court system.

"We added a second associate judge, a second associate courtroom and three more clerks," said Garrett. "We also moved into a very secure environment."

Computerization of court records also occurred under Garrett's tenure. When Garrett was elected in 1994, the associate court did not have a single computer.

"We used county funds to purchase our first computer and used it to manage our criminal caseload," said Garrett. "Now, all our records are on computer and available to the lawyers and the general public.

"It's been a difficult system to learn, and it's not the most user friendly system but it is an improvement," continued Garrett. "The clerks have done a super job in adapting. I believe it's a major improvement in getting information out and giving people better access to court information."

When asked what he liked best about serving as judge, Garrett said "all of it."

"There isn't any part I did not enjoy," said Garrett. "Some types of cases are more difficult and more stressful than others. The ones that tug at your heart are the domestic relations cases. Those are the ones you toss and turn about at night."

Because of the caseload, Garrett said the majority of his decisions have been written at home after hours.

"The hard thing is that sometimes you never know if it's worked out for the family," said Garrett. "But there are those times when someone writes you a letter or comes by or sees you in a store and tells you thank you. That really makes you feel like it was worthwhile, and I've been fortunate and had several situations like that.

"Even if I didn't decide the way they wanted, they sometimes come back and say it was the best decision for their family in the long run," said Garrett. "I've even had those who I have sent to prison tell me thank you because it made them turn their life around. And that's very satisfying, because we hope we can be a positive influence."

As a judge, Garrett had a reputation for treating everyone who entered his courtroom with dignity.

"I hope that people who have come into my courtroom have left knowing they were treated with respect and courtesy by me and all my staff," said Garrett. "I hope their opinion and position were respected no matter how I ruled on their case."

Garrett also had nothing but kind words to say about his clerks and the lawyers who practiced in his courtroom.

"I need to pat my clerks on the back, because they see a lot more people than I do each day and they always treated other people kindly, as human beings," said Garrett.

"I also have enjoyed the lawyers who practice before me," added Garrett. "We have a first rate group of lawyers practicing in this circuit. One of the things that characterizes the bar in this circuit is that the lawyers are able to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. That's very important and I hope it will continue."

Associate Clerk Cindy Puryear said she has developed a great respect for Judge Garrett after working alongside him for the past eight years.

"Judge Garrett worked many long hours to keep up with the number of cases that were filed," said Puryear. "He has always taken his position seriously and is a man of integrity.

"He will be greatly missed by many in Barry County as well as Lawrence and Stone counties," added Puryear. "It has been a pleasure to work with Judge Garrett, and I thank him for all the progress and support he has given to the court."

A farewell reception for Judge Garrett will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29 in the Barry County Judicial Center in Cassville. The event is open to the public, and cookies and punch will be served.

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