When Associate District Judge Martha Kilgore reviews the highlights of her career, she remembers the creation of three specialty courts.
Kilgore started Pontotoc County’s juvenile drug court in 2000 with the help of a team of experts. Three years later, she launched a specialty court aimed at helping people who abuse their spouses.
Then in 2009, Kilgore created a third court to help people who suffer from mental illness.
Kilgore said the creation of the three courts was her biggest accomplishment.
“It was something very new to the area,” she said in a May 13 interview. “We already had adult drug court, and the adult drug court had been in operation three or four years before I started the juvenile drug court program. So that was kind of an incentive to work in that area.
“And then when the other opportunities came up, I just thought, ‘Well, why not? This will help somebody stay out of the criminal justice system and if we can do that, then we need to do that.’”
Now, Kilgore is entering a new chapter in her life.
The 59-year-old associate district judge announced earlier this year that she was retiring. She is stepping down as of today, leaving a vacancy at the courthouse until her successor takes office in January 2015.
Three candidates — Lori Jackson, Preston Draper and Heather Hammond Wright — are competing for the right to replace Kilgore. The June 24 primary election will decide the winner, unless a runoff is required in August.
Kilgore earned a bachelor’s degree in history, with a minor in math, in 1977 from the University of Wisconsin in River Falls. She then attended the University of Oklahoma College of Law, graduating in 1982.
After finishing law school, Kilgore joined the law firm of Deaton and Davison in Ada. She remained with the law firm for nearly two years, then worked as a solo practitioner from November 1984 through May 1988. She also served as an adjunct instructor for East Central University’s criminal justice program from August 1987 through May 1988.
In 1989 a former associate district judge resigned to return to private practice. Kilgore applied for the position and was interviewed by the state’s judicial nominating commission, which sent a list of three possible candidates — including Kilgore — to then-Gov. Henry Bellmon. Bellmon appointed Kilgore to fill the slot, and she took the bench in November 1989.
On her first day as a judge, Kilgore took her oath of office in the morning and presided over a juvenile case that afternoon. That case involved a young man who had been in trouble and was currently under supervision by the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Kilgore said she was acquainted with the juvenile justice system, so she felt comfortable in her new role.
“Honestly, when I went into the courtroom, I really felt like that’s what I was here to do,” she said. “As an attorney, I’d handled those cases the entire time I’d been in practice, and so I was very familiar with the process. It just felt right.”
As an associate district judge, Kilgore handles family court cases, including divorces, child custody disputes and adoptions. She also presides over the three specialty courts and assists other judges, among other duties.
She said she likes presiding over adoption cases because those are happy occasions for children and their new families.
“A lot of times when it’s children that are being adopted, the family will ask if I would mind being photographed with the child, and I don’t mind that at all,” she said. “I enjoy that.”
She said it warms her heart when she runs into adoptees and their families several years later, and they show her photos from their adoption ceremonies.
Kilgore has won several awards for her work, including Judge of the Year honors from the Oklahoma Court Appointed Special Advocates Association in 2005. She won the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Spotlight Award for outstanding female attorneys the same year.
In 2009, Kilgore won the 2009 Award of Judicial Excellence from the Pontotoc County Bar Association. She received another honor earlier this year, when the Oklahoma chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named her its elected public official of the year.