Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said he has shared his career philosophy with his children and his employees alike — make sure the work is something meaningful, something you love and something you’ll be good at.
Drees said it’s what he’s followed in 31 years as a prosecutor and attorney, and now he’s ready to apply it to a new phase of his career as a judge.
While he has not yet filed with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, Drees confirmed in an interview Friday with The Hays Daily News he plans to run for Ellis County District Judge. He said he will file by paying the fee in the spring.
Drees — a long-time Democrat — will file as a Republican. He said he changed his party affiliation last summer.
“My party has left me. I just don’t fit into the party. In the current Democratic Party, both at the federal level, a state level, even to an extent the local level, just doesn’t represent my view anymore,” he said.
He described himself a “Kennedy Democrat or Docking Democrat,” referring to President John F. Kennedy and Kansas Gov. Robert Docking.
“I’m either a moderate Republican or a very conservative Democrat right now. I think the moderate Republican better fits where I am at,” he said.
He was careful in expressing his personal opinions, saying judges cannot spell out how they would vote, but did say his Catholic faith and pro-life, pro-society beliefs factored into his decision.
“I’m not saying the Republican side has all the answers, but it better fits where I’m at and I think I can help make changes from within,” he said.
Drees’ decision to not run again for county attorney — an office he’s held for 23 years — has been discussed in Ellis County Commission meetings since October, when commissioners began discussing salary schedules for department heads.
Earlier this month, the commission approved an almost $6,000 raise for the county attorney to $90,000, along with raises for other elected officials.
Drees stressed the discussion over pay, as well the county not approving a salary to keep his office at five attorneys, were not factors in his decision to not run for re-election. Seeking a place on the bench has always been in his career plan, he said.
“I always targeted 2020 as the year to run for judge. That is still my plan,” he said.
Republican voters in the August primary will face at least two choices for district court judge — Judge Blake Bittel has already filed for re-election after serving one term. Bittel will be profiled in The Hays Daily News next week.
Drees said his experience as a prosecutor suits him well for becoming a judge.
“As a good prosecutor, we’re seeking justice, and so it’s not our side versus their side. It’s seeking justice, looking at what has happened, figuring out factually what has happened, applying the law to it, and then being fair to the victim and the defendant. I think my career has shown I’ve done that,” he said.
Drees, a fifth-generation Ellis County native, was first elected as county attorney in 1996, when the office consisted of two part-time prosecutors — himself and Glenn Braun, now the chief judge of the 23rd Judicial District. He also served as Trego County attorney, also a part-time position, from 1997 to 2000.
Prior to his election, he was an attorney with Glassman, Bird and Braun after graduating from the University of Kansas Law School. He received a bachelor’s degree from Fort Hays State University and graduated from Thomas More Prep-Marian High School.
After being elected to his second term in Ellis County in 2000, the county commission voted to make the county attorney a full-time position.
Since taking office, Drees has overseen a department whose workload has grown by more than 200 percent. In fiscal year 1996, 69 felons were convicted and sentenced. In 2018, 221 felons were convicted and sentenced.
Drees attributes that growth mainly to good prosecution as well as investigations conducted by law enforcement across Ellis County.
Throughout his 23 years in office, Drees has been appointed to state committees and commissions including the Kansas Sentencing Commission by Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson from 2007 to 2012. Attorney General Derek Schmidt appointed him special assistant attorney general to the Prosecutor’s Review Committee of the Kansas Sexual Violent Predator Commitment Act in 2011. He still serves in that position.
He was also appointed to the Kansas Recodification Commission of the Kansas Sentencing Commission.
“By being on the Sentencing Commission, I got to look at statewide sentencing issues and how prosecution worked throughout the whole state, so I’ve continued to look at patterns and study that,” he said.
The recodification commission examined state criminal statutes over two years, looking at rewording statutes and substantive changes to law such as proportionality of sentencing and changing classification of crimes. The Legislature passed the rewording of statutes in 2010, but failed to consider the more substantive changes.
Drees has also been active in professional organizations and in the community. He has served on the board of directors and as president for the Kansas County and District Attorney’s Association, and on the boards for Northwest Kansas Community Corrections, Northwest Kansas Juvenile Justice, High Plains Mental Health Center and Court Appointed Special Advocates of the High Plains.
He is on the board of the Ellis County Historical Society and is an assistant scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 101. He is confirmation catechist at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.
He has coached youth sports for the Hays Recreation Commission and served as the IHM parish council and Holy Family Elementary School counsel.
Drees and his wife, Patricia, have been married over 30 years. She is a nursing instructor at FHSU. They have two children — Anne, a high school teacher in Great Bend, and John, who will graduate from KU this spring and who also plans to become a teacher.