Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
Grant Chenoweth spent the days before the new year moving antique desks and bookcases out of the Chenoweth law office in Lawrenceburg. The Main Street building where Grant and his father Bob practiced law for nearly a decade is home to treasures Bob Chenoweth had collected over his more than 50-year legal career – antique oak desks, glass-front barrister bookcases, paintings, lunch boxes, toy school buses and school bells.
“He knew where every antique hole in the wall was all over the state because he was driving all over the state to represent school districts and doing work on behalf of the attorney general's office,” said Grant Chenoweth, recalling how antique store owners would put aside school bells knowing his father would buy one whenever he came through town.
During his career, Bob Chenoweth was counsel to 156 Kentucky school districts, argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and wrote more than 350 Kentucky Attorney General opinions, mostly about education law.
On Dec. 31, Chenoweth, and his wife, Jeri, who ran his office, closed the office for the last time and officially retired.
“We joke that Dad wants to retire 10 years from now and Mom wanted to retire 10 years ago,” said their son, who shared the law practice with his parents for 13 years.
Bob Chenoweth’s name was synonymous with education law in Kentucky and his loss will leave a void, said John Fogle, KSBA staff attorney, who worked with Chenoweth and whose father was Chenoweth’s law partner.
“I was privileged to get to work with and for Bob for some 17 years before joining KSBA and, as I have related to Bob, it strikes me that we will be losing a vital piece of the school law landscape,” Fogle said.‘Look into school law’
Bob Chenoweth and his son Grant pose for a photo in front of the Chenoweth Law Office in Lawrenceburg. Grant plans to continue practicing education law. (Photos provided by the Chenoweth family)
Growing up in rural northern Indiana, Chenoweth didn’t plan to become an attorney, he just wanted to work on his family’s farm, but his parents insisted he go to college. He was studying to be a teacher in the late 1960s when his academic adviser told him he should go to law school.“He suggested a phrase that wasn’t even a phrase at the time. He said, ‘You ought to look into school law,’” Grant Chenoweth said. “Nobody had ever heard of such a thing.”
So that’s what Bob did for the next five decades.
He chose University of Kentucky law school because it was within a day’s drive of Indiana and Chenoweth and his wife settled in Lawrenceburg. After a brief stint as local attorney in Lawrenceburg, Chenoweth took a job in the Kentucky Attorney General’s office focusing on school law. He stayed for 12 years – working for four attorney generals, including Robert Stephens, who would later become the Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice.
While working in the attorney general’s office, Chenoweth argued three cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, only one if which was about education. The case was about federal education funding supplemented or supplanted state education funding. The other two cases were criminal law cases.
Another education case Chenoweth worked on reached the Supreme Court. The court, however, ruled without hearing arguments. In that case, Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments on the wall of every public school classroom violated the First Amendment because the purpose of the display was essentially religious.
Bob Chenoweth and his wife, Jeri, in 1969 at the University of Kentucky law school.
“So, before the age of 40, he had argued at the U.S. Supreme Court three times, briefed multiple other matters there, was all over the state already on behalf of the attorney general’s office,” his son said. “So I just sit back and think, I’ve had an interesting career already. But by the time Dad was my age, he had done so much more.”
By the mid-1980’s Chenoweth had tired of the politics of Frankfort so he went into private practice, first in partnership with Tyke Bryan and Jack Fogle in Mt. Sterling, then as sole owner of the Chenoweth Law Office. When he started representing school districts, there were 180 districts in the state; before he retired, Chenoweth represented 156 of them. He has also represented several of Kentucky’s education cooperatives, a state university, two private schools, county government officials and served as attorney for the City of Lawrenceburg.
Growing up, Grant Chenoweth heard many stories of his father’s travels across the state. The elder Chenoweth would attend a late-night school board meeting in one county, drive to a hotel for the night and appear in court the next morning in a different county. Along the way he encountered all types of situations, including once in a board meeting or deposition when someone pulled a gun, his son said.
Chenoweth developed a reputation for calling things as he saw them, no matter the pressure he was getting from a board member or superintendent, Grant Chenoweth said. He lived by the motto: “Sometimes in error, but never in doubt.”
“He just has that confidence of having made a decision as to what the law ought to mean, how it ought to be interpreted and applied, and just so confident to say it in the face of anybody who disagreed with it, whether it was another attorney or elected official, or whomever,” his son said. “He was always willing to say his piece and to give his interpretation.”
Chenoweth and his wife worked out of offices in the KSBA building from 1985 to 1990 when Chenoweth moved to an office on Second Street in Frankfort. The Chenoweth Law Office remained there until 2012 when Grant suggested his parents find an office closer to home in Lawrenceburg.
They found the double store front on Main Street just a mile from their home, Grant Chenoweth said.
Bob Chenoweth, who retired Dec. 31 after more than five decades of representing school districts, collected many items during his travels across Kentucky, including toy school buses and school bells.
During his last year of practice, much of Chenoweth’s work focused on COVID-19 as boards and districts grappled with Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive orders, guidance from KDE and other regulations that affected how districts operated.“It’s just everybody trying to sort through how much of what the state is saying is mandatory versus how much of it is just guidance, how much which discretion you have,” Grant Chenoweth said. There have also been many calls about what is the board’s authority, versus what is the superintendent’s authority.
But the phone stopped ringing on Dec. 31.
Grant Chenoweth plans to continue practicing education law with the firm of Porter, Banks, Baldwin and Shaw.
“That’s all I want to do is continue representing school boards,” he said. It’s something his law school classmates could not understand. They warned him that having the same type of client everyday would be boring.
“For me just over 13 years in, no two days have ever been the same,” he said. “The same question, the same facts, never repeat themselves. There's always a nuance. There's always a few more questions we have to ask.”