Catherine Cupp Theisen sworn in as Douglas County District Court judge

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Catherine Cupp Theisen said Friday that she is honored to join fellow judges in Douglas County District Court, and she will strive to apply the law as fairly and impartially as she has seen them do. 

She was sworn in before a courtroom packed with family, friends and colleagues Friday afternoon. 

Terrence Campbell, a longtime friend and colleague of Theisen’s at Barber Emerson L.C., said Friday was a wonderful day, but also bittersweet. He read a bit from the letter he wrote to Gov. Laura Kelly recommending that she select Theisen for the bench. 

“My only hesitation in recommending her for the position of Douglas County district judge is that I am certain I will miss her brilliance, counsel, and grit every day for the remainder of my professional career,” he read. “I am equally certain, however, that my firm’s loss will be for the benefit of our great state of public faith in our judicial system and the cause of justice.”

Campbell reflected on some memories from the 28 years he’s known Theisen. Theisen attended Oklahoma State University for undergrad. She didn’t go straight to law school afterward, but decided to apply to the University of Kansas School of Law in 1994, Campbell said. When she found out she was admitted, she called her mother to tell her she was going to law school. 

“Guess what her mom’s answer was? ‘So am I,’” Campbell said. 

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Terrence Campbell

Mother and daughter both started law school at separate universities in August 1994. Ann Cupp had a “wonderful second career” as an attorney in Oklahoma, Campbell said. 

Once during class in law school, a professor called on Theisen, Campbell said. Theisen “explained an answer in well-reasoned fashion, and the professor told her that she was wrong.” 

But “Cathy was certain that she was not wrong.” 

“… She convinced the professor that she was right, and the professor apologized. So that’s consistent, I’ll say, with my experience in working with Cathy,” Campbell said, drawing laughter from the crowd. 

Campbell said Theisen has a reverence for the lawyers and judges who blazed a path for her and other women in the practice of law, including her own mother. He noted that during law school, Theisen had interned for Judge Kathryn Vratil, the first woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. 

Campbell said he had seen Theisen “so deftly outmaneuver” an opposing expert witness on cross-examination that the expert admitted the essence of his opinion was wrong. 

“Lay people see that happen on television all the time, but it almost never happens in a real courtroom,” Campbell said. “And it never happens without excellent lawyering.”

Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria swore Theisen in as she stood next to her husband, Chris, and sons, Andrew and Jack. Her parents then helped her put on her robe.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria swears in Catherine Cupp Theisen, joined by her sons, Andrew and Jack, and husband, Chris.

Theisen said it was humbling to hear Campbell’s remarks, and she thanked everyone for being there. She also thanked the governor for selecting her for the position. 

“It’s an undertaking that I take very seriously, and I’m honored to do so and to be of service,” she said. 

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times

She said she holds the current judges in high esteem, and she’s honored to join them. 

Theisen said her parents encouraged her interest in the law from an early age — “sometimes not so subtly,” she joked.

While other kids did crossword puzzles, her mother gave her deductive reasoning and logic puzzles, like the ones that appear on the Law School Admission Test. Her mother also sewed mix-and-match suit separates for all of her Barbies, including jackets and pencil skirts. 

She said she kept it a secret that she was applying to law school, and it was quite a shock when she found out her mother was, too.

“I enjoyed going through law school with my mom from a distance,” Theisen said. “Both of my parents have taught me important lessons that I bring to the bench. They taught me to work hard; that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; that you should always do what’s right even when it’s really hard; and never stop learning.”

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Catherine Theisen’s mother, father and sons listen as she speaks from the bench.

She said that when she came to Barber Emerson in 2007, they hadn’t had an attorney who wanted to work unconventionally — part-time — like she wanted to. 

“I wanted to pick up my kids from school every day, and Terry made that possible by convincing the partners that I had the ability and commitment to make that work and be an asset to the firm,” Theisen said. “… I will forever be grateful for that because I was able to have my priorities the way that I wanted them to be, and be able to practice with some of the smartest and most capable lawyers that I know.”

She told her colleagues it has been a joy to practice with them, and thanked them for their help, professionalism and support. She also recognized and thanked Bethany Roberts. 

“It was very easy to be Bethany’s friend,” Theisen said, and when she found out that part of her caseload would be the domestic docket, “Bethany very unselfishly and very patiently shared her expertise with me. She answered my questions and has helped prepare me for this.” 

She said her husband has “always been my biggest supporter and fan, and encourager,” and told her sons that nothing has brought her greater joy than being their mom. 

“You will always be my proudest accomplishments and I really mean that,” she said, pausing briefly — “No pressure,” she added, prompting laughter. 

“I’m very honored to serve Douglas County in this role, and it will be my constant effort to apply the law faithfully and impartially to achieve justice,” Theisen said. 

Theisen’s experience includes representing clients in “complex civil disputes in federal and state courts, commercial disputes, business litigation, trust and estate litigation, agricultural disputes, and employment litigation. She also advises clients on employment law matters,” according to her bio on Barber Emerson’s website. She worked for a firm in Dallas before joining Barber Emerson in 2007. 

Theisen and Carl Folsom III were appointed by Kelly on Oct. 28. Folsom was sworn in earlier this month, filling a new seventh division at the courthouse. Theisen will preside over Division 3, left vacant by the July retirement of Judge Kay Huff. 

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria

Now, with the exception of Judge Sally Pokorny, all the Douglas County District Court judges were sworn in within the last eight years, McCabria said. 

“I make that observation simply to recognize that the district court in Douglas County continues to be a dynamic bench that attracts good candidates,” McCabria said. “We’re growing with the community, we appreciate the Legislature recognizing that need, and we hope this makes this a very good place to practice law and receive all that the law can offer to clients and parties who come before it.” 

Note: Post updated at 6:36 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30 to add Soundcloud embed

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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