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WJA 2021: Courtney Wachal

Kansas City Municipal Judge Courtney Wachal presides over a daily domestic violence docket that recently had grown to nearly 350 cases in one day, as the court continued to work through its COVID-19 backlog.

wachalShe is a former public defender and assistant city prosecutor. Whether steadily steering the court through rising caseloads amid a sustained global pandemic or twice winning U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) grants for courtroom innovation, Wachal has consistently earned praise for her court’s work with both survivors of domestic violence and offenders.

The first DOJ grant came in fall 2017, when it named the Kansas City municipal domestic violence court as a “mentor court” for its creation of a compliance docket — a specialized, supervised probation docket for high-risk offenders.

The docket is rooted in the evidence-based theory that offenders with increased supervision are most likely to comply with their conditions of probation, Wachal said.

Then in January of this year, DOJ awarded the city’s domestic violence court a $1 million grant to launch a pair of early intervention programs: a required class for first-time offenders, who must complete the program as a condition of bond; and a Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) docket to provide targeted services for young adults, for both offenders and their partners.

Appointed to the domestic violence court in 2015, Wachal has also presided as judge of the municipal venue’s drug court program since January 2019, bringing both innovation and improved efficiency.

That court’s specialized docket for drug cases involving domestic violence offenders melds the therapeutic environment needed to recover from substance abuse disorders with the more law-and-order approach of traditional drug courts.

“The approach for drug courts is very therapeutic,” Wachal said. “And the approach for domestic violence offenses is very accountability-oriented. So the compliance domestic violence drug court docket uses a hybrid approach.”

Born and raised in Schuyler, Nebraska, Wachal is a 2001 graduate of the flagship university in Lincoln, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, psychology and political science.  After receiving her law degree from the University of Kansas in 2004, Wachal headed to the southwest Missouri town of Ava as a rookie public defender.

She remained with the defender’s office until 2011, when she started working for the City of Kansas City.  Prior to her judicial appointment, Wachal also served as mental health court prosecutor for the municipal court.

Wachal cites her father as inspiration for a career in public service. Bob Wachal, a meat packing plant worker turned corn and soybean farmer, also served on the school board during the time Courtney, the eldest daughter, and two younger sisters attended school.

“He was my biggest role model,” she said, citing some local disputes once the Cargill plant began attracting immigrant workers and their families.He always believed in people too and always tried to do the right thing, even when it wasn’t popular.”

 Outside of her office, Wachal is past president of the board of directors for Sheffield Place, a shelter for domestic violence survivors and their children. Past honors include being named a Champion of Change by the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and Judge of the Year in 2017 by the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City.

Women's Justice Awards 2021