In his initial career planning, Marc Kelly did not see himself following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. But that’s exactly what has happened.
Kelly, a Vandalia attorney who is a partner in the local law firm of Burnside, Johnston, Sheafor and Kelly, was appointed to a judge’s seat late last week.
Cynthia Y. Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, announced on Thursday afternoon that the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court judges had voted to select Kelly as an associate judge in that circuit.
Kelly, 37, was selected from a field of 17 candidates for the judicial post, according to Judge S. Gene Schwarm, the Fayette County resident circuit judge and chief judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit. The circuit includes the counties of Fayette, Effingham, Christian, Clay, Montgomery, Marion, Jasper, Shelby and Clinton.
Kelly is the son of Linda Kelly and the late Judge William D. “Bill” Kelly, and the grandson of the late Judge George and Betty Kelly, and Russel and Erma Farley. He and his wife, the former Michelle Johnson, also a Vandalia native, are the parents of a son, Andrew, age 4.
His father was a judge from 1980 until his death in 1994, after also having served as a state’s attorney, and his grandfather served as a county, associate and circuit judge for a total of 25 years.
“A lot of children grow up wanting to be like their mom or dad. I grew up having both a father and a grandfather who served as judges here in Fayette County, so it is kind of a dream come true for me to be in this position now,” Kelly said.
Kelly, who will be sworn into office by Schwarm at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 16, in Fayette County Circuit Court, is taking the associate judge’s seat formerly held by Judge Dennis Middendorff.
Middendorff, a long-time associate judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit who is now the resident circuit judge in Clinton County, was elected last November to the circuit judge’s seat previously held by Judge Patrick Hitpas.
A 1991 graduate of Vandalia Community High School, Kelly graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with degrees in business administration and marketing.
While he had thought about a career in business, Kelly changed his mind as he thought about where he would be living.
“I had not thought about (a career in law) probably until after my father passed away (in 1994),” Kelly said.
“I always kind of saw myself coming back to the Vandalia area,” he said. “I just didn’t know what opportunities would be available to me.
“After getting my degrees and looking at what was available (in business), I decided that maybe I should look at law school, because that would be a good way to ensure that I could come back to Fayette County,” Kelly said.
He earned a law degree from John Marshall Law School in 2000 and joined the local law firm in which he is now a partner. While waiting for the results of his bar exam, Kelly worked in the Fayette County State’s Attorney’s Office and also did some appellate briefs for the Appellate Prosecutor’s Office.
In the law firm, Kelly has had a general law practice – “everything from municipal law and criminal law to divorces and estates,” he said.
He also served two terms as Fayette County’s public defender for two years, and handled public defender duties for another two years in cases where the public defender had a conflict.
Kelly, who became a partner in the Vandalia law firm in 2005, said he is ready to serve as a judge.
“Obviously, I see it as the next progression in the legal profession,” said Kelly. “It definitely presents a new set of challenges … and I look forward to those challenges.
“There will be a learning process,” he said. “As other judges have done, I will rely on what I’ve observed over the past 10 years.
“Each judge has his or her own way of doing things, and I’m sure there are quite a few things I will learn on the job,” Kelly said.
While admits to be just a little nervous about his new job, Kelly feels confident about becoming a judge. “It’s not too different than trying my first case and appearing in court the first time. Those things pass, and it becomes second nature,” he said.
As Kelly goes through the learning process, he can turn to other judges for advice.
“Other judges have been very kind, provided me with words of encouragement and offered their assistance,” he said. “They’ve all been through the process, they know it’s a big change and they know that I’ll have questions.
“You don’t always have the answers, but having other people to rely on is definitely to my benefit,” Kelly said.
Judge Michael Kiley, the resident circuit judge in Shelby County, will often be the first person to whom Kelly will turn to for advice. Schwarm has appointed Kiley, who has the second-most judicial experience in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, to serve as Kelly’s mentor for the new judge’s first year.
“Illinois has a good judicial education program,” Schwarm said, talking about the mentor program. “The (Illinois) Supreme Court provides conferences, as well as a lot of written and online resources.”
The mentor judges “have a checklist of things to talk about with a new judge, and the mentor’s role is to not tell a new judge what to do in a particular case, but to just give some general advice,” Schwarm said.
Kelly feels fortunate to have gained experience in many areas of law by working in the Vandalia law firm.
“With larger firms, you never get to see a courtroom,” he said. “Here, I was immediately put into the courtroom at the lower levels, handling such things as small claims and ordinance violations.
“And then, I was lucky enough to serve a couple of terms as the public defender while I also worked for our firm and gained experience in other areas,” Kelly said.
The other lawyers in one of the area’s oldest firms, including current partners Jack Johnston and Don Sheafor, have played a key role in his development as an attorney.
“They’ve been an invaluable resource for me over the years,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better firm to work in.”
Kelly will be one of 20 judges in the Fourth Judicial Circuit and one of eight associate judges. While circuit judges are up for retention votes by the general electorate, associate judges are up for retention votes by the 12 circuit judges every four years, with a 60-percent majority required for retention.
Schwarm said that Kelly was elected to serve the remainder of Middendorff’s term as an associate judge, and that he will be up for a retention vote this June.
He said that initially, Kelly will be working in a “floating position. He will be going into all nine counties, and will be assigned as needed throughout the circuit.”
However, Schwarm said, Kelly’s time in Fayette County Circuit Court will be limited. Under the Code of Judicial Conduct, attorneys in a firm in which a judge formerly worked cannot appear before that judge for three years.
The chief judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit believes that his cohorts made a good choice in electing Kelly.
“I believe that Marc will be a good judge,” Schwarm said. “First of all, there’s his experience. He has experience in the criminal area, having served as the public defender here in Fayette County, and then, in his private practice, he has had, really, a strong civil practice.
“He has done a lot of litigation in all areas,” Schwarm said.
“I have also found Marc to be a person of high integrity and strong character, and one thing that’s important, one thing that I have recognized, is that he has an excellent demeanor, which I think will really serve him well as a judge.
“And my observation of him as an attorney is that he is always prepared, and that’s important, too, for a judge,” Schwarm said.
“I am also pleased that we now have another judge from Fayette County,” Schwarm said, noting that it has been more than three decades since two judges in the circuit were residents of this county.