Metro-East Living

Retired Belleville attorney makes a case for his profession

Retired Belleville attorney Jim Keehner talks about one of his proudest moments in court

He wrote a book about his experiences, including getting a Cahokia family man's sentence reduced
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He wrote a book about his experiences, including getting a Cahokia family man's sentence reduced

Jim Keehner, of Belleville, pulled a gas mask from his briefcase.

It’s a souvenir from his 50-year career as an attorney. When he was Illinois assistant attorney general in 1969, he set up the Southern Illinois Environmental Control Program.

“We were pioneers,” he said. “We handled violators. The EPA office in Collinsville would call me to say Monsanto is polluting its neighbors. The same thing was being said in 1969 as is being said today: ‘We have to do something right now. Our world is going to be destroyed.’ It’s nonsense.”

But his work did get under the skin of some.

“One time, (St. Clair County Sheriff) Mearl Justus asked, ‘Would you come and speak to our monthly meeting of St. Clair County city officials at Fischer’s,’” Jim said. “He wanted me to talk about water and air pollution control. When I got done, the mayor of Sauget, Paul Sauget, said, ‘You are so concerned about air quality, you might need this.’ He handed me a gas mask. I got a kick out of it. To me, it was a token of my success. I had done enough to clean up air and water that he took offense. I kept it for 45 years.”

Jim, 80, tells that story and several from his career in “Law & Politics Warts and All,” (Page Publishing Inc., $12.95, paperback, available on amazon.com). He touches on politics, environmental and his 11 “eye opening” years in East St. Louis handling consumer fraud complaints. He recounts interesting cases representing murderers.

When he started his career in November 1959, there was no public defender system. A young lawyer would be appointed to defend the accused.

“Lawyers are always being asked, ‘How can you defend someone when you know he killed a person?’” he said. In three cases he outlines, there is more to each one than meets the eye. He makes the point, “You can best serve your client by working with the facts as you know them.”

One time, he had a case in federal court in which he represented a Cahokia man who was in federal prison in Marion for stealing a car and driving it across state lines.

“That’s what made it a federal crime,” he said. “The prison at Marion had just been built. The people around there weren’t happy about a new prison in their rural area. It had taken the place of Alcatraz. I made a motion to reconsider the judgment. I pointed out that the friends and relatives in the courtroom were not there to object. He had a wife to support and a baby on the way. The judge (Juergens) reduced his sentence to time served. That makes you feel you have done something worthwhile.”

The longtime attorney applauds St. Clair and Madison County programs, such as Children First (“It was started 26 years ago to help kids in divorce cases survive with as little damage as possible.”) and Visitation Exchange Center (“If visitation is highly contested and there’s a chance of violence, the wife brings the children and leaves. Fifteen minute laters, the husband picks up the kids. It’s funded by people who file for divorce.”), Legal Assistance (www.lollaf.org) and Manditory Arbitration on cases between $5,000 and $50,000 (“People can get to court much faster, cheaper. They go through a panel of three attorneys. Two attorneys have to agree. If both sides are satisfied, the case is over.”)

Jim, whose wife Ronnie died 27 years ago, is the father of three daughters, Julie Katz, Jan Wohlrab, and Lisa Guldner, and grandfather of six girls. “My youngest granddaughter is a cheerleader at West.” His oldest daughter and oldest granddaughter followed in his footsteps.

“From the time Julie was a little girl, she’d come to court and ask questions,” he said. “She was valedictorian of her class at Belleville West. During summers when she was in law school, she worked in my office. By the tme she passed the bar, she knew a lot of lawyers. ... My oldest granddaughter — Julie’s oldest — Amanda Fischer is (St. Clair County) assistant state’s attorney. My only surprise was I was looking for her to be the third generation at U of I. Julie told me Amanda won’t be going to U of I. Washington University gave her a full ride.”

Best advice Julie got from Dad: “The greatest asset an attorney has is integrity,” she said, “and that your word has to be your bond. I have always tried to live by that advice.”

Lawyers can go in and argue like crazy. You think they can’t stand each other, but they walk out and are friends.

Jim Keehner on arguing cases

He maintained a general law practice through the years. About 20 years ago, he set up Keehner, Cannady and Katz with daughter Julie and Tom Cannady.

“It was a nice relationship,” Jim said. “I was with my daughter a lot.”

He retired in 2010 after Julie was appointed judge, but he didn’t give it up entirely. He still works part time and exercises regularly at the Belleville YMCA.

“I see my Y friends every morning,” he said. “We do our own separate thing, then tease and carry on.”

Q: Why write a book?

A: “There have been so many changes in the practice of law. I thought people interested in law and politics, and certainly young lawyers, would be interested.”

Q: How did you set up the book?

A: “This book is written like a lawyer going to trial. There is an opening statement, several discussions and a closing statement. Every time a lawyer closes with a jury, he says, ‘Thank you.’ That’s how I end my book.” Along with, “I’ve said what I had to say. I hope you gained something and realize we are not bad.”

Q: Why did you become an attorney?

A: “I grew up in Jerseyville. My parents were born at the turn of the century. They had to quit school early and go to work. No one went to college. From eighth grade on, I wanted to be a lawyer. When I went to University of Illinois, I enrolled in a pre-law program. ... When I graduated from law school, all my friends went north. I wanted to come back home. I was a Cardinals fan. I came here instead of Jerseyville. I was hired by John Sprague in May of 1960. I wanted a broad variety of cases, and man, do you get them down here. In my general practice, I would do everything but tax law. That should be handled by a CPA.”

Q: Have you had any clients you just couldn’t stand to defend?

A: “A man was in my office. I was talking on phone to the lawyer on the other side, trying to work out a settlement. I was friendly with the other lawyer. When I hung up, the client said, ‘I think you are too friendly with that other lawyer.’ You can challenge my reasoning, my handling of a case, but not my ethics. By saying I was too friendly with the other lawyer, he was questioning my integrity. Lawyers can go in and argue like crazy. You think they can’t stand each other, but they walk out and are friends.”

Q: How did you know it was time to retire?

A: “Julie was appointed to a judgeship. I had been practicing 50 years. She wasn’t going to be around to visit with. I thought, ‘Now is the perfect time.’”

Q: Are there things about your job you don’t miss?

A: “The thought of getting up at 4 a.m. and working on jury instructions for a trial makes me feel I couldn’t do it any more. I used to try a lot of family custody cases. I decided I had had enough when I won custody for a husband. He was strutting around the courtroom. The wife was crying. When you win a case and want to get the heck out of there, it’s time to go.”

Q: How do you stay involved in law?

A: “I still spend 15 to 20 hours a week doing legal-related things. Tomorrow I’m going to a title company to sign deeds and give advice. I just got off a four-year term on the downtown Belleville YMCA Board. I’m on the Children’s First Board. I help an agency that deals with mentally handicapped people. I am also an arbitrator for St. Clair County Arbitration Board.”

Q: Any other reasons for writing the book?

A: “This way, my great-great-grandchildren would know there was a grandpa around and what he was about.”

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