From the CIA to the bench, new Shawnee Co. Judge took unique path

Published: Nov. 21, 2019 at 10:28 PM CST
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When Penny R. Moylan is sworn Friday as a Shawnee Co. District Court judge, she will have the distinction of being the first judge to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Moylan will be sworn in as judge at 3 p.m. Friday in the Div. 13 courtroom on the fourth floor of the Shawnee Co. Courthouse. She'll take her oath on the Bible her parents gave her when she first went to college.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced Moylan's appointment as the Div. 7 judge Oct. 21, filling the slot left by District Court Judge Franklin Theis, who retired after 42 years in July.

Moylan, 51, was born in Dallas, moved to Maryland at age 5 with her family, moved to Topeka for a four-year stint in 1980, returned to Maryland where she graduated from Damascus, Md., High School, and attended colleges in Maryland, and settled in Topeka after graduating from Washburn University Law School.

"I never thought about being a judge," Moylan said during an interview with 13NEWS. But she said she ultimately realized, "being in a judge's position puts you in a position to help people."

Moylan had an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1990 from Towson State University in Towson, Md. Through her denomination, she volunteered as a summer missionary in Rwanda in summer 1990.

As for the CIA, Moylan worked in the summers of 1987, 1988 and 1989 as a security escort for people entering the CIA without a clearance.

She later was accepted into the agency's Office of General Counsel Program for Law School Graduates.

During the summers in law school and winter breaks, Moylan also worked as a law clerk for the general counsel of the CIA. In spring 1994, Moylan worked several months on a task force for the CIA.

She graduated from the Washburn University Law School in May 1995, and was offered a full-time job with the CIA. However, she turned them down. She says she and husband Dan Moylan decided it would better to raise a family in Topeka rather than in the east.

She worked at the Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds and Palmer law firm, where she worked on civil defense litigation, business transactions and insurance defense litigation.

She then did contract work at home for Mark Bennett and Wilburn Dillon when her first two children were born.

"I'm grateful" to Bennett and Dillon, she said. "I was able to be home and with my baby."

In 2012, she returned to full-time work as a research attorney for Kansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Lee Johnson. She worked in that position for three years before she missed the "hustle and bustle" of the law.

Moylan also was a deputy disciplinary administrator of the Kansas Disciplinary Administrator's Office, investigating and prosecuting ethical complaints filed against Kansas-licensed attorneys.

Stan Hazlett, the disciplinary administrator of the state's office of the disciplinary administrator, hired some lawyers with private law practice experience. Moylan felt they were trying to help some of the attorneys facing complaints.

"I was really encouraged by their attitude. I thought they had empathy. They were a group who took their job of protecting the public seriously and making sure the rules of professional conduct were followed. They do have a desire to work with attorneys so they can get back on the right track," she said.

As for the path to a judgeship, Moylan said she first thought about it in spring 2018.

"Judge (Joseph) Johnson, the juvenile judge, I read that he was retiring. This still small voice inside me said I should apply. Then my voice said, 'Are you nuts?'" she said. "I called Justice (Lee) Johnson and said I'm thinking about doing this. Is this completely out of the picture? (and he said), 'Absolutely not. You should apply.'"

Moylan said she also reached out to Chief Judge Evelyn Wilson.

"She was extremely encouraging too," Moylan said. "One of the questions I asked her was, 'What do you like most about being a judge?' Her answer was, 'Helping people.' "

Moylan didn't get Johnson's judgeship, but she applied for the vacancy left by the retirement of District Court Judge Franklin Theis in July and was selected.

"I'm beyond humbled," she said. "I'm excited. I'm nervous. It's a huge responsibility. I take it really seriously."

To seek appointment as judge, a nominee must be at least 30 years old, a licensed Kansas lawyer for at least five years, and a Shawnee County resident.

Attending Friday's ceremony with Moylan will be her husband, Daniel Moylan; their children, Samuel Quincy, 22, Mackenzie Elizabeth Cannon Moylan, 19, and Jeremiah James Moylan, 12; her parents, Jim and Gara Cannon; and her older brother, James Franklin Cannon Jr.

An earlier version of this story stated Judge Moylan contacted Judge Joseph Johnson about applying for a judicial opening, instead of Justice Lee Johnson, as she said. 13 NEWS regrets the error.

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