Dickinson retiring after 19 years on the bench

By Blake Spurney

NEWTON – Chief Judge Joe Dickinson isn’t quite sure where he’s going when he steps down from the bench in September, he just knows he’s going to spend more time fishing, hiking and hanging out with the grandkids.

“As a practical matter, I think I’ve had enough – almost 40 years with people’s problems,” he said. “I think I’m ready to take a break.”

Dickinson didn’t plan on becoming a lawyer when he was in college. The Hoyt native started out as a psychologist at Menninger Children’s Hospital in Topeka because he wanted to help people. After three years, he decided that career wasn’t for him and he entered Washburn Law School. Looking back, he said it was kind of funny because he got out of the psychologist game because it lacked a set of definite rules.

“I thought law would be more structured,” he said. “It turns out there’s plenty of gray areas in the law.”

In 1982, Dickinson wound up in Newton working for Jack Jones, who was looking for an associate. He said started out handling mostly defense work for indigent clients and divorce cases, which he referred to as the “armpit of the law.” Divorce cases take a toll because of all the emotions involved with the clashing parties.

“Rational people become irrational,” he said. “They say that criminals are bad people trying to act good and divorces involve good people acting bad.”

Dickinson said one client he had was fighting with a future ex over a paint-by-numbers painting of a horse. Another couple fought over a chainsaw.

“I think it’s just something that they’ll pick to fight about because of hard feelings,” he said.

Dickinson said he started thinking about sitting on the bench when Ted Ice retired 19 years ago. He said he liked being a zealous advocate for his clients and thought it would be tougher to rule on a case than argue it.

“In some ways, it’s easier,” he said. “The good thing is, once I decide a case, for all intents, it’s over.”

Dickinson said he hadn’t kept track of how many times he had been overturned by an appellate court, but the odds are in a judge’s favor. He said a judge typically had to abuse his or her discretion to get reverse. He said it was comforting to know if he made a mistake, someone else was there to fix it.

“I don’t mind. We’re just there to get the right answer.”

Dickinson said one of the strangest cases he heard involved a question of international law, specifically whether a case should be heard in Harvey County or in Saudi Arabia. A prince who owned a Boeing 777 was thought to be dead. A flight engineer who worked for the prince was living in Newton had filed a claim for back wages. Another factor that complicated the case was that a bank in Utah held a claim on the jet. A question being argued was whether the bank should be responsible for the contract the engineer worked under. Dickinson ruled that the case should be heard here. It was eventually settled.

“That was odd,” he said. “That was crazy and unexpected.”

Another memorable case for Dickinson involved James and Paige Nachtigal, who were convicted in 2018 on charges of child abuse against children they had adopted. He said the case aroused a lot of publicity and feelings. He sentenced the couple to 30 months in prison. He acknowledged that some people thought the couple should have gotten longer sentences, but he said the couple had good intentions when the children were adopted.

“It turned into a sad situation for all concerned,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, he said he enjoyed handling adoptions and weddings.

“Everybody’s happy,” he said. “The family’s happy. The kids are happy. Weddings are fun. I’ve probably done 300-400 weddings.”

Dickinson said Ice, Carl B. Anderson and Richard Walker all served as mentors for his career as a jurist. He described his style as trying to stay out of the way of the lawyers and to let them try their cases.

“I also am careful to be courteous and respectful of people,” he said. “It’s difficult to discern the right legal answer, but you can always be respectful and polite to people. And it helps in a difficult process. You can’t let your emotions get away from you. There’s things that make you angry or upset, but you really have to control your emotions.”

Others had nothing but positives to say about Dickinson’s courtroom presence.

Judge Marilyn Wilder, who will be replacing Dickinson as chief judge, struggled for the right words to describe her colleague.

“I think he makes everyone in his courtroom feel valued and important, lawyers and litigants alike,” she said.

Kevin Loeffler said Dickinson explained things to jurors or defendants if they didn’t understand an issue. He said he was a calming presence to jurors and calmed their nerves before a trial.

“That’s probably one of the best things about Judge Dickinson was his demeanor in court,” said Kevin Loeffler.

County Attorney Jason Lane said Dickinson had been inviting and friendly since he started working in Harvey County.

“It’s nice to be able to be in court where the judge treats everyone with kindness and respect,” he said. “It’s a good place to practice law.”

Dickinson said he and his wife, Sheryle, might end up in western North Carolina. His daughter, Sarah, is moving close by to Greenville, S.C. They’re also considering the Black Hills. Wherever they go, he’s looking for steams with plentiful trout and somewhere they can use their kayaks.

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