In her near 20 years on the bench, a lot of cases have gone before Graves County District Court Judge Deborah Hawkins Crooks and they have covered a variety of topics from criminal and civil cases, traffic tickets to even alligator relocation.
After looking back on the long hours and number of cases, Crooks is looking ahead to a new stage of life having decided not to seek re-election in the 2022 race.
“When I was younger, people would say, ‘Well, you’ll know when it’s time to retire,’ ” she said recently. “I’ve felt the last year or so it was getting close.”
Court proceedings changed over the past 1 ½ years with the pandemic, which can limit what a judge is able to glean from a defendant or witness through virtual testimony. And while that was a negative to the judicial role, Crooks said her time in the courtroom as assistant county attorney to the bench has also allowed her the joy of seeing the local legal progress from generation to generation with names like Robbins (Farland, Gayle and Scott) and Boyd (Sam Boyd, Boyd and Bo) and Null (Dennis, Richard, Denny and John).
“There’s always a Neely and a Robbins and a second generation of Nulls,” she laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Mr. Null,’ and they’ll say ‘Which one?’ ”
A graduate of Murray State University and Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law, Crooks was sworn in as an attorney in 1985 and worked with Sedalia native Sid Easley at his Murray practice when he informed her Graves County Attorney Gayle Robbins was looking for a full-time assistant.
She had her first jury trial three weeks into the job and for six years ran the child support office, prosecuted juvenile and traffic cases, and covered for Robbins when he was out of town. When she and husband, Kenneth, were expecting their second child, Crooks decided to leave her post but was offered a new opportunity with a life-long friend. Tim Stark, who had been a part-time assistant county attorney with Robbins, was looking to start his own practice and asked Crooks to be a partner.
“I had been a prosecutor and wanted to do some civil practice. I liked the criminal side so I thought I could do defense,” she said. They worked together for 10 years in their private practice, dividing up bankruptcies, probate, title, defense and divorce cases. Both would eventually take on judicial roles, with Stark being appointed and then winning the circuit court judgeship following the late John Daughaday.
Crooks had also seen an opportunity to run for a judicial seat in 2002, where she won a three-person race in the primary and eventually defeated incumbent District Judge Royce Buck in the general election that November.
To the Graves County voters and both Stark and Daughaday, she offered her thanks. “I’m very grateful to the voters that they’ve seen fit to bring me back for five terms. That’s very humbling,” she said. “Judge Daughaday welcomed me with open arms and was so helpful and Judge Stark has been a friend and law partner.
“I’ve been very fortunate, despite the demands of the job, to have people who can help.”
Crooks admitted the job can be demanding, seeing plenty of heartbreak from her vantage point facing defendants and their families. She added it is also a 24/7 job, recalling one day when local law enforcement were doing drug roundups and made five trips to her home between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. for various requests.
“They’d do one thing and there’d be evidence and they’d need another different search warrant for something else and one thing kept leading to another,” she said. “About 3 o’clock, I put on a pot of coffee and just stayed up and had to be on the bench the next day.”
Requests from Mayfield Police, Graves Sheriff’s deputies and Kentucky State Police troopers have come in the middle of funerals, church services, workouts and Christmas parties. But she said sometimes you have to look for the lighter side wherever you can find it. One area is just in the different cases district court covers from criminal, probate, name changes, juvenile and traffic cases, small claims and guardianships to name some.
“They say district court is a court of limited jurisdiction, but I have not found what it’s limited to,” Crooks said, laughing. “My desk is like a triage. This is urgent stuff...this can wait…”
One case that couldn’t wait involved an alligator that had outgrown its living space after it was caught as a small gator by two local anglers in either Florida or Louisiana and brought back to Graves County in the mid to late 2000s. Crooks said court had run late that day and during a brief recess a Fish and Wildlife officer approached her to sign a warrant.
“I said, ‘What kind of warrant do you need?’ and he said, ‘I need you to release this alligator,’ ” she recalled. Crooks said the fishermen had kept the gator in a metal water trough until it got too big.
“I said ‘Where’s the alligator now?’ and the people in the courtroom are listening to the conversation now,” she added. “He said, ‘It’s out front in the bed of my truck.’ So the courtroom clears out and everybody runs outside to see this alligator in the bed of this truck.”
Helping her navigate her duties has been administrative assistants Donna Kendall and Lisa Woods, whom she thanked, as well as her clerks and local law enforcement. But now after 19 years, Crooks is looking forward to spending time with her family, including daughters, Allison and Madison and their own growing families, traveling and even working in the yard.
“It’s been an experience. I don’t regret it,” Crooks said of her career. “It’s like the weather in western Kentucky: If you don’t like what you’re doing right now, give it 15 minutes and something else will change.”