When Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan, Jr., looks out his office window on the seventh floor of the Charles Evans Whittaker Courthouse, he sees places he knows well.
“You can almost look out the window to where I lived in the northeast part of KCK,” Gaitan said, “gesturing to the northwest where the Kansas and Missouri Rivers meet.”
Then, pointing to the northeast, Gaitan looks at the building where he worked for the first five years of his legal career.
“When I finished law school, I went to work right across the street in that building there,” Gaitan said. “I was a lawyer for Southwestern Bell and I can look out of this office and look at the old office I had.”
Gaitan has served as a judge for more than 30 years. He has served by presidential appointment on the bench of the United States Court for the Western District of Missouri for more than 20 of those years. Prior to his appointment, he served as an appellate judge for the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District and as a state trial judge. Gaitan was the youngest person ever appointed as a trial judge for the Missouri Sixteenth Judicial Circuit and was just the second Africa-American judge in state history.
A national legal magazine has described Gaitan as one of the 500 leading judges in the U.S. and he has received the Difference Maker Award from the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Centurion Leadership Award, the 2009 Pittsburg State University Meritorious Achievement Award and numerous other honors.
Gaitan came to Pittsburg State University after attending community college in Kansas City, Kan., where he took math and science courses and prepared for a career in medicine. In his first year at PSU, he decided he didn’t want to be a doctor and changed his major to psychology, but he still wasn’t clear on what he wanted to do for a career.
“When I graduated from Pittsburg (BS ‘70), I got a nice job with a big company as a sales rep,” Gaitan said. “It was great pay with an expense account and all that stuff, but the job wasn’t satisfying to me.”
Gaitan switched direction and took an offer to work for Rebound (later to become Y-Pals), a YMCA program that served juveniles.
“It was co-sponsored by the YMCA and the young lawyers section of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association,” Gaitan said. “I started working with volunteer lawyers who worked with juveniles who didn’t have a role model in the family. There was usually not a father and often there was a mother who was heavily burdened with responsibilities and kids were getting in trouble. That’s where I got my interest in law.”
“At the time I was growing up, I was very aware of the strides made in the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “In newspapers and television, I learned the importance of courts and of legal decisions. They had a real impact on civil rights and on people’s lives. I saw a legal career as a way for me to be a positive force for change.”
He also said he was fortunate to have parents who impressed upon him the value of education and teachers at Sumner High School who would not accept anything but his best.
“Sumner High School was segregated, too,” Gaitan said. “We had some of the finest teachers there who saw teaching as a mission, not just a job. If you were not working to your capacity, those teachers would push you. They pushed me. I knew I didn’t want to end up like some of my friends did. Some of them didn’t go to college, they went to jail.”
Even segregation, in its own way, influenced Gaitan.
“Ironically, segregation created those role models for us, because I lived in a neighborhood where bankers and lawyers and teachers lived because segregation prevented them from living anywhere else,” Gaitan said. “They lived in my neighborhood or in the nearby neighborhoods, so I grew up with their kids. I got a glimpse of what could be.”
In his own professional life, Gaitan has tried to be that same kind of mentor for others. Gaitan said the demands of his role as chief judge have made public service more difficult, but he looks for opportunities to serve. He sits on the Second Chance Advisory Committee, an advisory panel to the KC Crime Commission, and on the Board of Trustees for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Over the years, he has served on many boards and advisory groups, including more than 25 years on the St. Luke’s Hospital Board and many years on the DeLaSalle Alternative School Board, where he served as president.
“I try to reach out as much as I can to others,” Gaitan said. “It is nice to think that maybe you are making a difference.”
Q&A with Judge Gaitan:
Q. What are the responsibilities of the chief judge?
A. The chief judge is like the chairman of the board of a corporation. I am the liaison between the judges and the administrative executives of the court. The court is basically a $30-$40 million operation, which is similar to some small businesses. All major decisions including hiring, firing and budgeting has to come through me first. Our court is part of the overall federal judiciary, so I coordinate with the Administrative Office in Washington, D.C., on issues pertaining to court operations. Additionally, I meet with other chief judges annually to discuss common issues affecting the federal judiciary, whether it is budgetary constraints, which we are facing now, or just the
latest developments or proposed developments involving criminal or civil law or procedures. We have 15 judges and the number is growing. Our divisional courthouses are located in Kansas City, Springfield and Jefferson City. Kansas City is the home base for our district. We had a court in Joplin and St. Joseph, but we consolidated them into the Kansas City and Springfield divisions. We just opened a new courthouse in Jefferson City and I was part of that team, too. Each day there is a new challenge. You almost never know what you will face.
Q. Are there types of cases you find particularly challenging?
A. Some criminal cases are extremely challenging. The whole area of sentencing is extremely challenging these days. We’ve gone from mandatory guidelines in sentencing, which can be pretty brutal, to advisory sentencing guidelines where we have more flexibility, but we have to be accountable for that flexibility. It takes a lot of soul searching, a lot of research, and there is a lot of emotion for the families.
Litigation in federal court can be complex and challenging legally. It can become very expensive. The judiciary is always trying to figure out ways to move cases faster and make litigation less costly for the parties. Many people do not realize that trial is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the work is done before you get to trial. By then, most of the complex issues have been resolved. So when we get to trial, it’s just playing out the script. At trial, the lawyers’ real focus is making sure they can explain the remaining issues to a jury in a way the jury will understand.
Q. What is one thing you enjoy about your job?
A. The thing that gives me the most pleasure is naturalization ceremonies. I had the pleasure of presiding over our largest-ever ceremony. We had it at Municipal Auditorium. There were about 1,500 people sworn in at one time. You could look out at the sea of people from all over the world. The smaller ceremonies are just as significant, because the families are able to be a part up close and personal with this process. This is citizenship at its finest hour.
Many of us take citizenship for granted. These people are so happy and proud to be citizens. Those are exceptionally positive experiences for us as judges.
Chief Judge Gaitan has presided over many important cases in his decades as a state and then federal judge, but one in 2006 got national attention and put Missouri in the spotlight in the debate over the death penalty. In that case, Judge Gaitan temporarily halted executions in the state of Missouri because the state did not have a written protocol to guide how the executions, by lethal injection, are carried out.
“Maybe people thought I was against the death penalty, but that wasn’t the case,” Gaitan
said. “My many years of experience as a judicial officer have led me to truly believe that there are people who should not be a part of society. I’ve seen a number of them. I’ve tried capital murder cases and seen the worst of people… But, if we’re going to execute convicted murderers, we need to dot our I’s and cross our T’s. I’ve got to be pretty darned sure we’re doing the right thing and that it’s done for the right reasons.
“Missouri at the time did not have a written protocol in terms of how they executed people. It was my belief and that of other judges around the country that it needed to be humane. The procedure needed to be done with some certainty…States are coming around to understanding they need to have policy and procedure that can be documented and reviewed. Missouri is like that now.”