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Kentucky lawyer James Ballinger drowns while boating on Harrods Creek

Jan 09, 2024

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Belma Lunderman McClaskey.

In 1973, as a third-grader at Louisville's Frayser Elementary School, Jim Ballinger's teacher gave him a book that had belonged to her late husband, a pioneering Black lawyer who founded one of the city's first African American law firms and had died just before the start of the school year.

The book was "How to Cross Examine a Witness Successfully." And inside, Jim's teacher, Belma Lunderman McClaskey, had inscribed, "To James, a someday successful trial attorney."

Twenty-four years later, Ballinger, by then a successful trial attorney, tracked down his former teacher, who had remarried and changed her name, and brought her a dozen red roses and his eternal gratitude.

"You taught me I could be anything I wanted to to be," he told her, as reported in a column by Bob Hill on the front page of The Courier Journal in 1998 and later on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "And I was just an 8-year-old kid."

James D. Ballinger, the son of a letter carrier who practiced law for 23 years, died last weekend when he fell off his boat into Harrods Creek. His body was found Tuesday, and the cause of death was drowning, according to the coroner.

Ballinger, who lived in Oldham County, was 57.

Louisville Metro Police said a man called 911 to report the body. LMPD's River and Homicide units responded. Anchorage Fire and EMS and the Coast Guard assisted in the recovery effort.

Ballinger was co-counsel in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners at Louisville Metro Corrections who were allegedly held after they should have been released. In 2021 he told The Courier Journal the suit could cost Metro Louisville millions of dollars.

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Allowing the case to proceed as a class action, a federal judge said jail officials had known about the problem for years but failed to address it.

"Jim was an excellent, hard-working, and caring lawyer who treated clients, opposing counsel, and the court with utmost respect," said Greg Belzley, his co-counsel in the jail case. "More than that, he was just a great guy with a great heart who sincerely gave a damn about the regular folks who make this world go around, and fought untiringly for their rights. I will miss him greatly."

Ballinger, who was a litigator and civil rights lawyer, was admitted to the bar in 2000 and practiced at 3610 Lexington Road.

He worked his way through the University of Louisville's law school at night while working full time as a production analyst, and later a budget analyst, at Phillip Morris, according to a bio on his website.

Before attending law school, Ballinger, the son of a mail letter carrier, worked as one himself from 1985 through 1991. He later worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing USA in Georgetown for three years after he obtained his bachelor's from U of L, painting cars at night. He was later promoted and reported directly to the plant manager.

While in law school, he clerked for Martin E. Johnstone, when he was the deputy chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

His first job as an attorney was at Wyatt Tarrant & Combs and he later was a partner at Pedley Zielke Gorinier and Pence.

He served two terms as a member of the Louis D. Brandeis Inn of Court, which includes 80 local lawyers, judges and law students and whose mission was to promote civility in the practice of law.

He was also a member for more than 15 years of the board of the Kentucky School for the Blind Charitable Foundation.

He later said his diverse background allowed him to be able to relate to and empathize with a variety of clients.

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Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 396-5853 [email protected].

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