COURT IS ADJOURNED – Presiding Judge Gary Dial Retires After 24 Years on Bench
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Judge Gary Dial was sworn into office as the 1st Circuit Judge following his appointment to the office by Governor Mel Carnahan in 1996. Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mary Russell performed the ceremony at the Scotland County Courthouse. Judge Dial retired from the office on April 1st, 2020 after 24 years on the bench.
There was no ceremonial banging of the gavel Tuesday afternoon in the Scotland County courtroom as First Circuit Presiding Judge Gary Dial closed out his final day in office. While the judge had closed many a case in such a fashion in his 24 years on the bench, Tuesday was a relatively calm send off into retirement for the Scotland County native.
There was no “all rise”, no robe, and thus no need for a gavel. Instead Judge Dial sat at his desk in his office, putting the finishing touches on a written finding on what would be his final case as presiding judge.
It could have been a murder trial, or a multi-million dollar product liability case, or it could have been as simple as an order for a name change.
Dial has been on the bench for all of those types of cases in his nearly quarter century as presiding judge, hearing cases in his circuit, as well as across the state from Kirksville to Springfield and everywhere in between.
“One might believe that the high-profile cases are the most difficult, but for me it truly was any case dealing with children, and particularly custodial rights,” said Dial. “These decisions can have a lifelong impact on so many involved parties. Obviously the children, but also the parents and family members are all impacted by the child placement decisions handed down by the court. Since those traditionally are not high profile situations, it is something the general public may never see or be able to comprehend.”
The presiding judge serves as the head administrative officer for the circuit. In this case, Judge Dial supervised the court systems in Schuyler, Scotland and Clark Counties, working with the associate circuit judges, circuit clerks and juvenile officers in each community.
It was a role Dial entered into without a single day on the bench.
“Going from private practice to the bench is never easy,” said Judge Dial. “I give a lot of credit to Judge Webber. “In my opinion he is one of the best trial judges ever, so I was very fortunate to be able to practice law in his court for nearly 15 years. I learned so much from him, and I believe that helped my transition go very smoothly.”
After graduating from Scotland County R-I High School, Dial attended Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State) in Kirksville. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he went on to law school at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He graduated in 1980 and moved back home to Memphis.
“The Scotland County Prosecuting Attorney position was up for election, so I decided to run for the office,” said Dial.
There was just one minor issue – Dial didn’t officially pass the bar exam until September of 1980 and he was effectively elected when he defeated the incumbent in the August primary and there were no challengers on the November ballot.
Even with the early start, Dial was able to handle the position for a 15-year period, which also saw him open a private practice in Memphis.
In January 1996, Dial was appointed as Presiding Circuit Judge by Governor Mel Carnahan to fill the vacancy created when Judge E. Richard Webber was appointed to a federal court position.
“I never planned on being a judge,” said Dial. “It was not my ambition. But when Judge Webber got the appointment, I had several area judges and attorneys approach me and suggest I consider seeking the appointment. Looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The late Jim Sears, was state representative then and helped secure the appointment.”
Judge Dial completed the unexpired remainder of Judge Webber’s term before being elected by voters in Scotland, Schuyler and Clark counties for the first time in November, 1998. Jude Dial was re-elected three more times, completing three full, six-year terms. He was elected for the final time in 2016, and leaves office with two years remaining on his term.
The court issued a request to the Missouri Supreme Court to assign Clark County Associate Circuit Judge Rick Roberts to fill-in as the interim Presiding Circuit Judge. The order was signed by the Missouri Supreme Court Justice effective April 1. Judge Roberts will serve in the role until Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s officially appoints a replacement to complete the remainder of the unexpired term prior to the 2022 election.
That doesn’t mean Tuesday was the last time in the judge’s robe for Dial. He has taken senior judge status, which will make him available for appointment by the Missouri Supreme Court to serve in a variety of capacities.
“I’m hopefully not leaving the bench completely,” he said. “I still plan to handle some cases from time to time when there is a special need by the judicial system.”
In all likelihood, that would involve more high-profile situations that could include conflicts of interest for the sitting judge in that jurisdiction.
“In the bigger municipal settings, judges find themselves being forced to recuse themselves even with just the slightest interaction with any of the parties,” said Dial. “Obviously that cannot be the case in rural Missouri, where the judge knows at least a family member of nearly everyone that ever appears before them. Obviously you simply cannot take yourself off every case.”
Which also creates a different dynamic for rural judges, who cannot in turn avoid seeing past litigants out in public, generally on a daily basis.
“Honestly that has never been a problem for me,” said Judge Dial. “I’ve always made every effort to provide a thorough judgment that allows the parties to know where my finding is coming from. They may not always agree, but hopefully they can respect where the decision is coming from.”
“I have had people that I sent to prison, come home and search me out to thank me, and tell me that my decision turned their life around for good,” said Judge Dial. “That is the truly rewarding aspect of doing this job.”
With nearly four decades of service to the local legal system, Judge Dial said he had been looking forward to doing some traveling with his wife, Lana, but the couple’s plans have been interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
“We had planned to take the RV across the country but those plans are on hold as we shelter in place,” he said.
Dial said the plans were all about visiting new destinations and nothing about getting away from home.
“I consider it a privilege to have been allowed to serve the citizens of Clark, Scotland and Schuyler counties for all of these years,” he said. “The law allowed me an opportunity to meet so many people and to build lasting friendships that I will always cherish.”