Rest in Peace, Your Honor

January 1, 2014 | By Shane Phelps Law
Rest in Peace, Your Honor


Almost four years ago, as I was closing out one chapter of my life (as a career prosecutor) and beginning a new one (as a criminal defense attorney), I had the good fortune to meet Judge Kenneth Keeling of Walker County. It was a difficult time for me, dealing with the uncertainties of my new adventure and wondering whether I would be able to build a practice that would allow me to support my family.

I remember calling Judge Keeling at the urging of Judge Travis Bryan. Judge Bryan had known Judge Keeling for years and apparently had put in a call to Judge Keeling suggesting that he consider adding me to his list of attorneys to appoint to felony cases. Judge Keeling took my call and treated me as if we had known each other for years. He invited me to visit him in his chambers in Walker County to talk about practicing law.

Judge Keeling had a distinguished and colorful career as an attorney in private practice and had been on the district court bench in Walker County for a number of years. I had not met him before, but he received me in his chambers graciously and warmly. He was generous in his praise and encouragement and assured me that I would have no problems building a successful practice and making “a ton of money.”

We spent at least two hours talking about the law, family, and Texas history, one of his abiding loves. He fascinated me immediately and we became friends. I have been fortunate in my life and legal career to know several personalities who were larger than life, and who have had a profound impact on me. Kenneth Keeling was one of them. Opinionated, erudite, and articulate, Judge Keeling made an impression. His advice to me proved invaluable and has helped to shape my way of doing things as a criminal defense attorney.

Every time I visited the Walker County Courthouse over the past four years, Judge Keeling greeted me with enthusiasm and genuine warmth. I am not sure why he took such a liking to me, but I will be ever grateful that he did and that he was willing to share so much with me.

Judge Keeling evoked strong feelings in all who knew him. He was a complicated and textured personality. He did not suffer fools gladly. He sought out and mentored attorneys he respected, and they were all the richer for it. But, he often clashed with attorneys with whom he had disagreements. He was not shy about expressing his dissatisfaction with those he perceived to be falling short of his extraordinarily high personal and professional standards. So, you either revered Judge Keeling or you felt strongly otherwise. There was not much middle ground. Judge Keeling was not a “middle ground” kind of guy.

No one can deny, however, that Judge Kenneth Keeling was a force to be reckoned with. He had a keen legal mind, a strong sense of right and wrong, and very little bite inhibition. If he was unhappy with you, you knew it. He was one of the strongest personalities I have experienced in my life. When I appeared before him in court, I made damned sure I was prepared, respectful, and professional.

Judge Kenneth Keeling passed away this week. I am a better attorney and advocate for having known him. I will miss him immensely. The legal world has lost a powerful voice and I, among so many others, have lost a friend and mentor. I regard myself as incredibly fortunate to have known him.

Rest in peace, your honor.