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By Sam Perry
It was springtime in Kentucky and daffodils huddled in golden clusters beneath flowering dogwood trees that swayed on the lawn of the Capitol Building in Frankfort, Kentucky. Only six years had passed since the building’s dedication and the landscaping was incomplete, but there was enough to lift the spirits of anyone who ventured near the imposing symbol of Kentucky’s sovereignty. However, there was little to lift the spirits of those who sat in the Senate chamber on April 10, 1916, for it was on that day that members of that body convened to decide whether or not to remove from office the Judge of McCreary County, Kentucky.
Joseph Edward Williams had never served as a public official in any capacity until being elected Judge of the newly created McCreary County in November 1912. He had operated a general store at Flat Rock and had developed an unblemished reputation for personal integrity and sense of fair play. He was also a strong Republican and was the perfect candidate when that political party began its attempt to displace the Democrats appointed by Governor McCreary when the new county was created. Almost immediately after being elected, the political backlash got underway.
A disagreement regarding the interpretation of the Act creating McCreary County resulted in a judgement by the Franklin County Circuit Court, subsequently upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, that Williams be seated as Judge. The sitting Judge, Harry Jones, however, refused to give up his seat. Williams brought suit against him and won. He was, finally, seated on May 31, 1913. That action showed that Williams was willing to stand up for himself and could not be bullied. It was more than his enemies could tolerate and the stage was set for future conflict.
With the location of the seat of government still up in the air, it became Judge William’s task to render a judgement. Would it be in Pine Knot, where the new county had been incubated, or would it be in Whitley City, where the Whitley City Improvement Company was busy selling lots and promises of a glorious future for that community? On November 7, 1913, Williams declared that the seat of government would be built in Whitley City and ordered all of the offices in Pine Knot closed and moved to Whitley City. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. From that point on, the Democratic Party had Joseph E. Williams in the crosshairs. Led by John Ambrose Geary, the Lexington businessman who had attempted to turn the Big South Fork River region into his personal fiefdom, Democratic Party leaders watched Williams’s every move and scrutinized every decision coming from his bench.
When Judge Williams was informed of an attempt by Geary to bribe County Clerk George C. Walker into changing the results of the election for Kentucky Secretary of State, he consulted County Attorney George W. Stephens regarding what to do. Stephens advised him to obtain a warrant for the arrest of Geary and six other individuals suspected of vote tampering and the destruction of public property. This Williams did and the accused were taken into custody and lodged in the McCreary County Jail. All posted bail and were back on the street in just a few hours. The case never came to trial, but Geary believed that Williams’s arrest warrant provided him with the ammunition he needed to remove Williams from office.
On January 13, 1916, John A. Geary, R.C Sievers, C.E. Cain, J.R. Bruce, P.M. Stephens, J.C. Roberts, W.F. Hinkle, and Logan Bryant filed a petition with the Kentucky House of Representatives, seeking Articles of Impeachment for Judge Williams. By the time the petitioners finished with their list of grievances, twenty articles had been drawn up for presentation to the Kentucky State Senate. A trial date was set for April 10, 1916.
In each of the Articles of Impeachment, Judge Williams was accused of willful and corrupt mischief and misdemeanors in his office, in manner and form. The charges ranged from requesting a warrant without knowledge of the offense, habitually suspending the fines of defendants (one was an old man Williams did not want to see die in jail. He died within days after his release), releasing a young boy, charged with a crime, to the custody of his parents, to failing to report fees and keeping a docket. Of the twenty Articles, six were dismissed, outright, as being frivolous and, obviously, mean-spirited charges by the plaintiffs. The others, however, were deemed worthy of consideration, especially Articles I and II,
Both Articles I and II dealt with the failure of Judge Williams to obtain specifications regarding the nature of the offenses for which a warrant of arrest was issued. They were the Articles Williams’s defense attorneys found most difficult to explain. In testimony of witnesses, Judge Williams could only admit that he had merely acted in accordance with advice from the County Attorney who had told him to charge the defendants with banding together to destroy public property.
For fourteen days, the Senators listened to testimony from both the plaintiffs and the defendants. Witnesses were examined and cross-examined by the attorneys of both parties. Numerous citizens from McCreary County made the long journey from their homes to the state capitol to give their impression of Judge Williams and to endure long and tedious hours in the stuffy Senate chamber. Sitting through it all and trying to maintain a sense of dignity and self-control in the face of repeated accusations was the humble shopkeeper from Flat Rock.
With two-thirds of the majority of Senators required to find Judge Williams guilty, twenty-four votes to that effect were necessary to convict. Of the two most serious Articles, when the final tally was taken, Article I received seventeen votes of Guilty. Article II had twenty-three votes. On April 24, 1916, Joseph E. Williams, Judge of McCreary County was found not guilty. Only one vote stood between Williams being turned out of office and remaining where he was. For him, it was the narrowest of victories, but a victory it was, for sure.
Judge Williams returned to McCreary County and resumed his duties as County Judge. He served in that office until 1917, but was defeated for re-election by John Edward Perkins. In 1922, he was re-elected to his old office and served until 1925, at which time he retired from public service and resumed his old vocation as a businessman and community leader in Whitley City. He passed away in 1941.
It is hard to imagine a time when county judges in Kentucky had complete judicial authority, but for many years, they did. By all accounts, Judge Williams, although untrained in the law, exercised compassion and mercy in his judgments while remaining firm in his commitment to justice. He wielded his gavel, unafraid and unintimidated, in an age when disagreements were often settled from the muzzle of a gun.
His story has relevance for our time, too. In the daily barrage of news stories and headlines about ballot harvesting, drop boxes, stolen elections, and general confusion regarding how we Americans choose our leaders, sometimes it is wise to pause and remember that this is not our first rodeo. We have seen it all before and we will see it again as we struggle to make our feeble experiment in democracy work.