Sep. 23—One of this community's most admired jurists has been immortalized in the halls of Kentucky's Capitol.
An official portrait of retired State Supreme Court Justice Daniel J. Venters was unveiled Tuesday afternoon during a dedication ceremony in the high court's courtroom. The painting, by Versailles artist Stephen Sawyer, will now hang in a second floor corridor with the portraits of other Kentucky justices.
"This building is a special place for me and this room is a special place," Justice Venters said. "This bookends my career — my first job and my last job were here. To have this portrait placed here is a very humbling experience and one I'll forever be grateful for."
The first job was an internship with the Office of Attorney General more than 45 years ago and the last was Supreme Court justice, from which he retired in January 2019 after 10 years serving the 3rd District — comprised of 27 counties in southern and southeastern Kentucky.
Justice Venters served a total of 35 years in the judiciary — first as District Judge for Pulaski and Rockcastle counties from 1979 to 1984 then as Circuit Judge (which adds Lincoln County) from 1984 to 2003. He returned to civil litigation, practicing from an office on Fountain Square in downtown Somerset, before his appointment to the high bench in August 2008 by then-Gov. Steve Beshear.
Prior to his judicial career, he was an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties from 1975-1979 under then-Commonwealth's Attorney Hal Rogers, who is now a U.S. congressman.
Today, Venters said he's enjoying retirement — getting to read non-legal works, toiling at DIY projects around the house and traveling as the pandemic will allow. "I'm enjoying life out of the legal system where your world is immersed in conflict," he said. "After 40-some years of that, retirement is a great diversion."
Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. reflected on Justice Venters' time on the Supreme Court, saying he "was immediately comfortable as a fully engaged member of this collegial body and his words, whether delivered during questioning in oral argument from the bench, addressed to us during our debates in the conference room or recorded in a written opinion, were straightforward, insightful, challenging and always enlivened with Dan's inimitable wit or a clever turn of phrase."
Fellow retired Justice Bill Cunningham called it an honor to speak at Venters' portrait dedication — added that his colleague has all five of the characteristics he thinks makes a great Supreme Court justice — high intelligence, a variety of experience, excellent writing skills, common sense and character.
"All great organizations, including courts, need chemistry," said Justice Cunningham (ret.). "Winning basketball teams are seldom made up of all superstars. They are blended together into a winning combination by the combining of many strengths. But even on those teams there will be a player who can do it all, who is the superstar, who possesses all of those skills needed in abundance. Dan was our superstar."
Justice Venters' character is a result of the values instilled in him by his parents and other family members, religion, and through his learning and reflections, Justice Cunningham said.
"Dan was not swayed by the external values that are created out of convenience and pop culture without lasting virtue or worth," he said.
Justice Cunningham said that Justice Venters strictly adhered to the Constitution and believed in the rule of law. He was forward thinking when it came to case law, willing to change precedence when called for.
"Like the great justices of history, he was respectful of, but not enslaved by precedence," he said.
Justice Venters told the audience of his family, friends, colleagues and others that he was blessed with parents who set him up for success by providing a warm home, books and freedom to explore the world on his own terms while knowing he would learn the rules he needed to. He also credited his sisters, teachers, friends and colleagues, and thanked his wife, Family Court Judge Jane Adams Venters, and their children and grandchildren.
He added his family gave him a reason to accomplish what he has. "I want to leave them something to be proud of," he said.
In thanking Sawyer, Justice Venters said he was glad to be memorialized with the image he painted. The justice selected the Clinton County native two years ago after researching various artists. Sawyer worked from photos that were taken at the Capitol for the commissioned piece.
Venters' granddaughter Clementine Coomes added to the praise.
"Mr. Sawyer, your work has captured my grandfather so well," she said during the ceremony. "I can't imagine the difficulty of painting a portrait that not only shows a realistic representation of the subject, expresses his position and role as commissioned and also provides a glimpse of his personality. This portrait accomplishes all of these things extremely well. You managed to capture Justice Venters' intelligence and professional demeanor. But we also see my grandpa, his eyes showing his kindness and his sense of humor. I am happy to see that this portrait really shows him."
Justice Venters expressed great pride in his teen granddaughter's poise while speaking, as well as for the rest of his family. He estimated they numbered around 30 of the more than 100 in attendance at Tuesday's ceremony.
"Overall it was just a very humbling experience to be commemorated that way by my former colleagues on the Court," the justice said, "especially in that Capitol building, which has meant so much to my life. I'm humbled and honored that my passage there at the Supreme Court has been recognized that way. Few people get that opportunity."