Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Jerry G. Elliott, 73, of Lawrence, died Monday in Lawrence Memorial Hospital after a long battle with cancer.
Elliott was named to serve on the Court of Appeals in 1987 by then Governor Mike Hayden to fill a newly created 8th position on the bench. At the time of his death, he was the most senior judge on that panel and longest serving jurist on that court ever, said Chief Judge Gary W. Rulon.
“Jerry brought to our court a keen intellect, an uncanny ability to perceive the essence of an appeal, and a gift for precise and accessible legal writing,” Rulon said. “He was definitely our most beloved colleague.”
Elliott was known as one of the most active and popular jurists on the bench. During his tenure, Elliott heard some 2,354 cases and wrote at least 232 published opinions.
He served 42 years – the longest tenure on record – as a member of the Board of Editors of the Kansas Bar Journal, said Don Bostwick, a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Wichita who has known Elliott during most of his career.
“Elliott has a unique ability to help,” Bostwick said. “He knew people throughout the state and knew what topics were hot and knew who could write about them.”
Elliott spent his entire legal career serving as a member of various bar association committees, committees of the Kansas Judicial Council, and even the Judicial Council itself. He taught at the University of Kansas and Washburn law schools. He also taught at the National Advocacy Center in South Carolina one or two weeks annually.
He has presented hundreds of legal programs for lawyers and was a nationally recognized expert on the science of appellate brief writing. In addition, he published dozens of articles and book chapters primarily in areas of appellate practice, insurance and bankruptcy concerns.
He was an active member in the Wichita, Lawrence and Kansas Bar Associations and helped to create the Judge Hugh Means Inn of Court in Lawrence in 1992.
In 2004 Elliott received the KBA Phil Lewis Medal of Distinction for his outstanding and conspicuous service in the administration of justice and the law. He received the KBA Outstanding Service Award in 1982 and 1995.
“Jerry was a brilliant guy, and pretty much impressed everybody,” said long-time friend and colleague Bill Sampson, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, in Kansas City. “He was always so helpful and such fun.”
In fact, Elliott’s sense of humor became a distinguishing factor that set him apart from other jurists.
His first opportunity at humor as a judge came when his name was painted on the door to his new office at the Kansas Judicial Center. The painter misspelled Elliott leaving off the final “t.” No problem for Elliott, he found a suitable letter in a magazine, cut out the needed “t” and taped it to the glass. The fact that the “t” was the wrong size and typeface didn’t faze Elliott.
“He was self-effacing, but tremendously capable.” said U.S. District Court Senior Judge Wesley E. Brown, who offered Elliott his first legal position as a law clerk after his graduation from the University of Kansas Law School in 1964. “He never took himself seriously.”
Elliott was frequently heard reprimanding lawyers who met him. “My name is not Judge, my name is Jerry.” A smile would spread across his bearded face like that on Santa Claus, and he would extend his warm hand to the startled attorney. “Call me Jerry.”
Elliott once explained, “Judges and lawyers tend to come off to the general public as arrogant, this does nothing to help the legal system work the way it was intended. I take my job seriously, but I strive not to take myself too seriously.”
Outside the courtroom, Elliott was perhaps most well known for an extensive collection of outrageously comic ties decorated with cartoon characters. He used clothing as a means of poking some fun into the otherwise serious world of law, several friends reported.
When he played golf, and he reveled in the fact that he was a terrible golfer, he was known to show up in bright orange knickers. Once, a client concerned with the quality of Elliott’s clothing, actually turned one of his more obnoxious sport coats into a trash can.
Another time, then Kansas Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe was gathering judges for an official court photo but was concerned Elliott might appear shoeless. So, she ordered he appear wearing appropriate footwear. Elliott asked if he needed a robe, The answer was yes. He showed up in a plaid bathrobe, recalled Briscoe, who now serves on the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.
Elliott also launched the inaugural Court of Appeals Paper Airplane Challenge in 1992 by lofting paper airplanes from the balcony in the atrium of the Kansas Judicial Center, remembered Lawrence Attorney David Brown. “You could hear his laugh echoing everywhere.”
Born in Fort Scott, Elliott began attending Hutchinson Community College while a senior in high school. As a Hutchinson Community College freshman, he was a state junior college debate champion and finished third in the 1955 National Junior College Debate Championship.
Elliott went on to the University of Kansas as a sophomore after receiving a Navy ROTC scholarship. After serving in several social and scholarship organizations, including a year as president of the Phi Kappa Psi, he graduated with an AB degree in 1958.
Elliott served three years in the Navy ending his career as a Lieutenant. He served for nearly two years on an Admiral’s staff as an assistant in the anti-air warfare office.
He attended the University of Kansas Law School from 1961 until he graduated in 1964 receiving an LLB with distinction. As a student, he was a member of the Order of the Coif, served as note editor and editor-in-chief of the Kansas Law Review, and won numerous American Jurisprudence Awards for achieving the highest grades in several classes. He was a recipient of the C.C. Steward Award in Law as the outstanding member of his graduating class.
After serving two years as Judge Brown’s law clerk, Elliott was hired as an associate at the Wichita firm of Foulston, Siefkin, Powers & Eberhardt. He became a partner in the firm two years later.
“I met Jerry Elliott when he came to practice law in our firm neatly dressed in a three piece suit,” said long time friend Mikel L. Stout who still practices at Foulston. “What an incredible misrepresentation of his personality and attitude! What he didn’t misrepresent was his ability, enthusiasm and curiosity about all aspects of the law and most everything else as well.”
When talking about everything else, Elliott quickly became a moving force in his community after joining Foulston. After the death of his daughter, Meredith Carr Elliott at age 6 in 1973, Elliott became president of the Kansas Chapter of the Leukemia Society of America. He was also a member of the Music Theatre of Wichita and helped with the revival of the Marple Theater in Wichita.
Elliott was particularly proud of his accomplishments with Accent on Kids, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that constructed and ran two Ronald McDonald Houses in Wichita for families of chronically ill children.
After moving to Lawrence in 1987, he immediately became involved in the work of the Lawrence Humane Society and later with the work of VanGo Mobile Arts, Inc., the arts organization for high needs and under-served children.
Elliott’s devotion to young people was evident in all areas of his life.
“He was a wonderfully supportive mentor for lots and lots of people,” Bill Sampson said. After Elliott’s move to Lawrence he began working with local attorneys to found the Judge Hugh Means Inn of Court, which promotes mentoring of young lawyers. Elliott served as one of the first presidents of that Lawrence organization. He also mentored students at both KU and Washburn Law Schools and worked with nearly 20 individual law clerks during his tenure.
Judge Briscoe credits Elliott’s charm to his curiosity. “He was eager always to learn more about the people around him and he had the uncanny ability to recall family details, personal histories and relationships,” she said. “He was a good and true friend.”
Elliott is survived by his wife, Debra Duncan, also a lawyer; a son, Hunter Pearse Elliott, of St. Louis; a sister, Nancy Burke, of Independence, Mo.; and a brother Jim P. Elliott, of Hutchison.
Services will be held at 1 p.m., April 9, 2010, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, 701 SW 8th Ave., Topeka. Reception at the church to follow. Donations in lieu of flowers should be made to VanGo Mobile Arts, Inc., the Lawrence Humane Society, or the Accent on Kids, Inc., in Wichita and may be sent in care of Warren-McElwain Mortuary.