At the dedication of Terre Haute’s new federal courthouse in November 2009, then-Judge Larry McKinney of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana took a swipe at those who said it couldn’t be done.
The Southern District lost its presence in western Indiana when its Art Deco style courthouse on Seventh and Cherry streets was sold to Indiana State University. McKinney, not wanting the federal judges to exit from the region where the nation’s only federal death row is located, went to the authorities in Washington, D.C., and insisted another courthouse be built.
He was part of a team that included Southern District Bankruptcy Court Judge Frank Otte and Clerk Laura Briggs, along with then-Sen. Evan Bayh. Together, they led the successful push for a new federal courthouse.
On the day of the celebration, McKinney used his remarks to remind everyone that sometimes what seems impossible is possible. He said the building’s existence was “a slap in the face of cynics and naysayers and nabobs of negativism.”
McKinney, described as brilliant, dedicated, always ready with a joke, and a lover of fine single-malt Scotch, died Sept. 20 at age 73. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, two sons and several grandchildren.
“He was just a funny, funny man,” Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson said. “He was a little naughty and irreverent, which we enjoyed. He taught us not to be too serious.”
A 1969 graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, McKinney was nominated to the Southern District by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed in 1987. He served as chief judge from 2001 through 2007, and he assumed senior status on his 65th birthday, July 4, 2009.
During his 30-year career on the federal bench, McKinney handled thousands of cases.
His most memorable included an attempt by the city of Baltimore, Maryland, to pluck the Colts name for its new football team. In Indianapolis Colts, Inc. v. Metropolitan Baltimore Football Club, 34 F.3d 410 (7th Cir. 1994), McKinney issued a preliminary injunction that prevented the Canadian Football League’s new Maryland team from calling itself the “Baltimore CFL Colts.”
His favorite sport was baseball, always cheering for the Chicago White Sox, and once hurling the opening pitch across home plate at an Indianapolis Indians game. After Magnus-Stinson successfully interviewed for a magistrate judge position in the Southern District, McKinney told her that she had “hit it out of the park.”
He hung a framed picture of Detroit Pistons’ center Bill Laimbeer to help reduce irritating behavior. Whenever the attorneys, huddled in his chambers, began bellyaching, McKinney would point to Laimbeer, who had earned a reputation as a chronic complainer, and admonish, “No whining.”
“He was one of a kind,” said Southern District Magistrate Judge Tim A. Baker. “People just loved him and are going to miss him terribly.”
After completing his J.D. degree, McKinney served as a deputy attorney in the Indiana Attorney General’s office before moving into private practice. He was a member and partner at the law firm of Rodgers & McKinney before becoming a member and partner at Sargent & McKinney.
In 1979, he was elected as judge of the Johnson Circuit Court where he remained until his appointment to the federal bench. Attorneys who practiced before McKinney called him a “lawyer’s judge.”
He expected the lawyers coming before him to know the rules and to be prepared, but he also never forgot all the work that was required to represent a client. The judge had the ability to ask questions that cut to the heart of the issue and, when facing the litigants, he worked to make sure they were heard.
Yet he often added a touch of gentle humor during the proceedings and, after the parties and jurors had left the courtroom, he entertained the attorneys with his hysterical impersonations.
“He held lawyers to high standards, expected and demonstrated civility, worked as hard as any judge anywhere and had the gift of an uncanny sense of humor that made every day with him fun,” said John Maley, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP.
McKinney also spent much time nurturing the next generation. He volunteered for the civic education programs, We the People and Indiana Mock Trial, offered by the Indiana Bar Foundation in elementary, middle and high schools around the state.
To reinforce the lessons of the Constitution the students had learned in the classroom, McKinney began holding a naturalization ceremony during the We the People state championships. The young people would watch as immigrants and their families became U.S. citizens.
“It was one of the most feel-good things I have ever been a part of,” said Charles Dunlap, executive director of the bar foundation.
Around the time he took senior status, McKinney undertook a new initiative that required him to step away from the traditional role as a judge and, again, pursue another goal that others thought was impossible. He started a Re-Entry and Community Help program in his court to help ex-offenders coming out of prison find jobs, housing, food and the emotional encouragement they needed to become contributing members of society.
In an interview with the Indiana Lawyer, he explained that after spending 40 years sentencing people, he came to realize the ex-offenders could not be kicked onto the street when they had served their time. McKinney called upon all the resources of the court and then tapped student volunteers from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law to advocate for the REACH participants.
“In my opinion, his work on the REACH program was his greatest achievement,” said Monica Foster, chief federal defender at Indiana Federal Community Defenders. “He brought to the project such joy and hope.”
Thomas Ridley was a man McKinney had sentenced, released and then introduced to the REACH program. At first Ridley was skeptical but then he learned McKinney had kept abreast of his activities in federal prison. The judge knew about Ridley’s work to collect and send 1,600 bottles of water to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti and he knew about the times Ridley had been a calming force and stopped riots.
“He understood what it took to be successful in re-entry,” Ridley said. “We didn’t have to explain it to him. He got it.”
This year, the REACH program expanded to Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s court and recently, McKinney had joined Senior U.S. Probation Officer Ryan Sharp and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana Doris Pryor in sharing the program at a national judicial conference.
Ridley continues to volunteer with the REACH program while also preparing to launch a new program to enable ex-offenders to sustain family ties while they are in prison and to find stability when they are released. McKinney’s death has not discouraged Ridley, but he now has a “heavy heart” and knows one of his visions for the future will never be realized.
“I expected,” Ridley said of his friend and mentor, “one day we would be sitting on a porch laughing about things.”•