While it has been a month since the Honorable Jacqueline Cook retired from the bench, serving as Circuit Judge for Division I and Presiding Judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit for Cass and Johnson Counties, the Belton resident hasn’t yet closed the book in continuing to serve the Cass County community.
During Cook’s retirement open house in late December, colleagues from the past and present reminisced on the strides that the Cass County courts had made during her tenure.
With humility, however, Cook said none of her successes wouldn’t have been without the work of others.
Cook, who is now working in private practice at Franke, Schultz and Mullen in Kansas City doing litigation and appellate work, still plans to be active in the state’s judicial arena, serving on two Missouri Supreme Court committees.
She is also staying closely connected to the educational community, recently joining the Belton Education Foundation board.
“I’m still looking forward working in the community,” Cook said. “This permits me to continue to work on the issues that I am very much committed to and to help Cass County.”
Cook hails from a small farming community in central Illinois, but moved to Missouri after high school where she attended the University of Central Missouri, graduating in 1980 with degrees in history and business administration.
Cook then pursued a juris doctor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the day after she took the Bar Exam, Cook moved to Belton.
Following graduation from law school, Cook clerked for a year for the Honorable Fernando Gaitan, Jr., who was serving on the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District. Gaitan is now a U.S. Chief District Judge.
She also found time to earn a master’s in history from UMKC in 1990.
Cook then joined a law firm in Kansas City as an associate, which is now known as Wyrsch, Hobbs and Mirakian, and then had a short tenure at another firm before briefly going into her first private practice endeavor.
Taking the bench
Following private practice, she came back to work for Wyrsch, Hobbs and Mirakian until she was first elected to the Cass County bench in November 2000 after her first run for public office.
“I felt like I had something to offer,” Cook said. “I had people ask me to run, and I just think it is important to have individuals on the bench who can be fair and impartial, and follow the law.”
After officially taking the bench in January 2001, Cook began seeing a different view of the courtroom.
“I don’t think anything ever prepares you completely for switching the various sides of dimensions and becoming a judge,” she said. “I think my past experience helped me understand the legal concepts that I was asked to review and faced in court.”
Cook said her fondest memories from her early days in government was working with the circuit clerks in Cass County and Johnson County.
“Each of them worked so hard to make me look so good on my first day on the bench,” she recalled. “I had tried cases in state and federal courts for years, but there is just something different about putting on the robe and being the one sitting at the bench, hearing cases.”
During her 12 years on the bench, Cook quickly became well-liked and recognized for her contributions across the state despite the demand for long work hours and critical decision making.
“It’s not easy to have to look at a parent and tell them that they’re not going to be the one where a child lives. It’s hard to look at somebody and tell them that they’re going to go away for the rest of their life,” she said. “I have a new appreciation for the work that judges do. There wasn’t a day that didn’t go by that I didn’t realize that some decision I was making was that fork in the road that could irrevocably change somebody’s life.”
In 2008, Cook became presiding judge after Judge Joe Dandurand left Cass County to join the Missouri Attorney General’s Office as deputy attorney general.
Reactionary to restorative
During her tenure, Cook was instrumental in developing a drug court.
“With respect to our juvenile system, we moved from a system that was more reactionary to a system of what’s called restorative justice,” she said.
Cook said that most of the time, the kids who committed criminal acts, didn’t go to school, or were disruptive, had underlying reasons for what they were doing – whether it was substance abuse or a host of other issues.
“We moved from not just reacting after the child has done something, but we really tried to figure out what is going on and try to address those issues,” Cook said.
“I think when you do that, the repeat rate for kids substantially drops. It’s also a more holistic approach.”
While the drug court program has been effective, the courts are still swamped with juvenile cases.
When Cook took over the juvenile court in 2005, the county was supervising 39 abuse and neglect cases. In the beginning of 2012, there were close to 425 cases.
“Drug addiction in our community is a big factor, but because of the economy, we literally had families that were dropping their kids off at the juvenile office saying, ‘I just can’t care for my kids anymore’ – or we would find a family of eight staying in one room at hotel here in Harrisonville,” she said.
Cook said it was difficult meeting the challenges presented by the increase as they weren’t able to add extra staff.
“People need to realize – the people who work in our court system – whether it’s the judges or the court staff, or the individuals who work in the juvenile system – they have to work under extremely difficult circumstances with little financial support from the state,” she said.
Cook said that while the judiciary is one of the three branches of government, it only receives less than 2 percent of the revenues generated in the state to exist.
Another one of Cook’s commitments is education.
“Statistically, about 40 percent of those people incarcerated in the State of Missouri don’t have a high school degree,” Cook said. “Trying to convince children to not only complete high school, but seek higher education, is important to us.”
Cook worked to partner with the different schools and agencies in the community to encourage children to realize the importance of education.
She also helped start a DWI and Youth Court in Cass County.
“The thing that I take pride about is that we created an environment in the court system where we encouraged taking a look at alternative ways to handle a variety of cases that were more cost-efficient, and created long term results that were more beneficial to the individual, but also the community,” Cook said.
“If we didn’t have that Youth Court, those would be kids that we would have to funnel into our juvenile system. The more that we can use tools like that, the better off we are.”
Looking to the future
Cook’s advice to those looking to work in the judicial system:
“Remember that you’re always there to serve,” she said. “I believe in the law. I believe it’s important because gives order and structure, and I think it’s an opportunity to be able to serve people. People have problems. Whether it’s problems within their families, that they been a victim of crime, whether or not there’s just a dispute between neighbors, and the law helps to resolve that.”
As Cook begins the next chapter of her career, she said that she hopes to have a little more time to spend with family and other personal interests.
Cook, and her husband, Eldon, are coming up on their 30th anniversary this month. Together, they have two children, Daniel and Lauren.
She’s also a huge history buff – which helped her discover her passion for the law – and sports fan – cheering for the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, along with several collegiate teams.
Cook also loves to read, and enjoys hiking and scuba diving with her husband.