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Kansas judge Lawton Nuss to offer dose of poetic justice to cowboys

Published on -6/11/2014, 1:54 PM

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By Dion Lefler

The Wichita Eagle

That Lawton Nuss is one poetic justice.

Nuss, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, will be dispensing some frontier judgment on Friday at the annual Kansas Cowboy Poetry contest in Alma, a town 40 miles west of Topeka.

This ain't his first rodeo when it comes to judging cowboy poetry. He's done it every year since the contest began in 2011.

"It's a very enjoyable experience," Nuss said. "I get to rub shoulders with the real working cowboys and cowgirls."

Nuss said he's wowed by the depth of thought, humor and authenticity that the top cowboy poetry competitors put into their presentations -- along with the occasional rope trick or two.

"Judging Kansas cowboy poetry is pure pleasure, every second of every hour," he said.

Nuss will sit on a panel of celebrity judges that also includes Kyle Bauer of KFRM Radio, Frank Buchman of WIBW-FM, and Marie Martin of the Flint Hills Discovery Center Foundation.

Nuss comes by his interest in the cowboy way honestly. His mother's family has been running cattle out by Dodge City since the 1870s.

And while he grew up mainly in Salina, he worked on the ranch as a youth in the summertime and developed a deep respect for those who make a career out of wrangling cattle, he said.

Nuss got in on the ground floor of the state contest through a chance meeting at the governor's office.

He was there on court business and the cowboy poetry enthusiasts were there to get some official recognition for their fledgling competition. The top prize at the contest is the "Governor's Buckle."

They hit it off and a little while later, the organizers contacted Nuss and asked him if he'd be willing to judge that first contest. He's been judging it ever since.

The first go-around was basically all-comers. But the competition has evolved since then.

Those who compete at Alma will be the cream of Kansas cowboy poets, having survived regional qualifying rounds in Wichita, Dodge City and Strong City.

The top cowboy poets will be recognized at Saturday's Symphony in the Flint Hills concert, which is one of the sponsors of the contest.

During the judging, Nuss doffs his customary judicial robes in favor of jeans and boots. He said he started out with the classic "western snap" shirts but has since switched to a more modern button-down western-wear look. He has several cowboy hats to choose from, both straw and felt.

Nuss gets a little skittish talking about what he looks for in a cowboy poem -- judicial impartiality in play here.

"I like poetry that's well-written and I like a little bit of wit," is about as far as he explains his judging philosophy.

And while he appreciates the art form, Nuss concedes he has yet to sit down and pen any cowboy poetry of his own.

"I've been a little busy with things going on at the Kansas Judicial Branch," he said.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle

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