Becoming a district judge wasn’t really in his plans when Blake Bittel returned to Kansas to practice law, but he hopes to continue serving after being appointed to the bench four years ago.
“It has been awesome,” the WaKeeney native said in an interview with The Hays Daily News.
Bittel filed as Republican for election for District Judge in the 23rd Judicial District, which includes Ellis, Rooks, Gove and Trego counties. Tom Drees, Ellis County Attorney, has declared his intent to run for the same position as a Republican as well. The primary election is Aug. 4, with the general election Nov. 3.
In 2016, Bittel was an attorney in Hays when he was approached by several people about running for district judge. Then-Chief Judge Edward Bouker had decided not to run again, opening one of the two district judge positions in the 23rd District.
Bittel had already entered the race when Bouker was named a Kansas senior judge, and Bittel was appointed to the position in August 2016 by Gov. Sam Brownback.
“I’ve enjoyed serving the citizens here, and I absolutely love also going out to the other counties, Trego County, Gove County, Rooks County, meeting their citizens, serving those people. It’s been a very good but challenging four years,” he said.
He has presided over a variety of court proceedings in that time, including complex medical and personal injury actions, farm and water rights, domestic custody and child support and insurance disputes. He’s also presided over criminal proceedings including murder cases in Rooks and Ellis counties, as well as sexual crimes, burglary and robberies.
Bittel began practicing law in Oklahoma after receiving his degree from Oklahoma City University School of Law. He represented insurance companies, businesses and business owners in civil litigation.
In 2007, he returned to his roots in the 23rd District. Bittel grew up on a farm in Trego County and graduated from Ellis High School. His parents still live on the farm north of Ellis. He received his undergraduate degree from Fort Hays State University.
In returning home, he had to expand his practice to other areas of law.
“Out here you can’t really specialize, so I learned all about criminal law, domestic law and got that experience as well,” he said.
He said his experience has lent itself to the work of a judge.
“It is a difficult job. You handle extremely important decisions for a variety of people, businesses, property owners. It’s complex and you face difficult issues.
“I think I have broad, vast experience to handle all the issues before me because I’ve actually practiced them, and in the last four years I’ve been able to apply those,” he said.
One aspect of the job Bittel said surprised him was the amount of time spent writing opinions, but he has enjoyed it.
“People think that what we do is what we do when we’re sitting on the bench. There’s a whole lot that goes on behind the scenes in the office — research, writing, decision making. I guess that surprised me a bit, but I enjoy it. It’s scholarly and I enjoy that part of my job as well,” he said.
Because of their position and a need to not show bias, judges are restricted in what kind of community activities they can participate in. However, Bittel has been part of Our Town Our Kids, a pilot project through the Kansas Department of Corrections and other organizations including Kansas State University and Fort Hays State University. The project aims to provide communities with tools to help reduce the number of at-risk youth and their chances of ending up in the juvenile justice system.
“It was a great project to get people thinking, especially with the most current crisis with KVC closing,” he said, referring to the loss of 12 beds at KVC Hospital, 205 E. Seventh, that were reserved for children who were suicidal or dangerously aggressive.
“Given the fact we’re having to send our youth with problems with so far away from us is a huge issue,” he said.
“We were kind of a pilot for other communities across the nation,” he said.
Bittel is married to Rayna, a chief financial officer for a rural hospital. They have five children and two grandchildren.