Retired public defender running for circuit judge

Teresa Whitaker

Of the five candidates 28th Judicial Circuit's Division I race, only one is a woman.

Teresa Whitaker graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1990 and went to work for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) -- where she'd stay until she retired last July.

Whitaker recalled how she was sent to Pulaski District Court the next day after being sworn. Then-District Judge Walter Maguire was presiding, and is now one of the candidates Whitaker is running against.

"But for possibly issues with the pension, I probably would have stayed there a couple of more years," she said of retiring.

Whitaker became directing attorney for Somerset's DPA office in 2009. She was then promoted to regional manager covering Somerset, Richmond, Danville and Stanton. Finally in 2015, she was chosen to lead the DPA Capital Trial Branch statewide. Over the course of her career, Whitaker has defended individuals in 108 jury trials. Of the approximate 25 death-eligible cases she defended, she added, four went to trial.

"It is the hardest work that you will ever have but it's part of the system," Whitaker said, explaining the difficulty in getting to know families and seeing them watch loved ones fighting for their lives. "It's not for everyone but right now the system has the death penalty as an option in certain cases, and we have to have attorneys that are prepared to do that work."

Whitaker noted that addiction is at the heart of many cases. While the local drug court program is currently being supervised by Family Court judges, she is committed to supporting it.

Whitaker first became interested in the law as a freshman in high school. She majored in government and minored in speech communications as a pre-law student at Western Kentucky University. She decided early that she wanted to be a trial attorney.

"I love the aspect of being involved with actual people, having a person for a client and not a corporation," she said.

As Whitaker was preparing for retirement, former Circuit Judge David Tapp was in the process of being confirmed to the federal bench. She was encouraged to run to fill the remainder of Tapp's term by her husband, who had also retired from the Pulaski County Detention Center after 23 years.

"We could go and be doing stuff together but he said, 'You still have some good years left to try to make a difference,'" she recalled. "He said, 'This would be a wonderful position for you to have as a judge.'…We talked about it, we prayed about it and decided that this is what we're going to do together."

Having never run for office before, Whitaker called the experience a learning process. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic suspending in-court hearings, she had been observing civil dockets in order to brush up on that type of litigation as opposed to the criminal cases she has specialized in as well as taking classes.

"I know that's part of being a circuit court judge," Whitaker said, though she noted that circuit judges now preside over more criminal cases since the creation of Family Court. "Criminal law changes, and you have to stay up to date on what's going on.…You've have to do the same with civil law as well."

While knowledge of the ever-changing law is essential, Whitaker believes that commonsense is also needed to hold court. "You stick to the law; you apply the law to the facts but always remember that there's people there [in front of you]."

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