By Circuit Judge John N. Fogleman Special to the Evening Times
A look at the work of the courts at the courthouse in Marion should tell you that who your judge is matters a great deal. Nearly every day of every week a circuit judge is holding court in Marion.” Department of Human Services Cases: In this county there are many allegations made that children are being neglected or abused and often a judge is called on to either rebuild a family or terminate the parental rights of one or both parents. Domestic Relations Court: Divorce, child custody and alimony are the most common issues contested in this court. The most contentious and emotional of all court cases are often cases in which child custody is disputed. As a result these judges must be the calmest, clearest thinkers our judiciary produces. Civil Court: The judge may be hearing a simple car wreck case but it may be a medical malpractice case with complex scientific and medical issues as well as legal ones. It may be a dispute regarding the meaning of an insurance policy which might be the difference in a policy covering damages of $1 million dollars as opposed to $2 million dollars. Criminal Court: Unfortunately in Crittenden County a great deal of our court time is consumed in dealing with allegations of criminal behavior. In this court a judge’s decision may be the difference in life and death. Juvenile Court: As a young prosecutor it was my sad duty to prosecute cases in juvenile court. It astounded me how hardened and violent some of these juveniles could be. At the same time there were other juveniles that it was clear were actually well behaved, good “kids” until they were returned to their home environment. The judges in this court have the difficult task of balancing the need to protect the people of Crittenden County versus the need to identify which juveniles can be helped and get them the appropriate assistance. Probate Court: The judges in this court are often called upon to interpret the Last Will and Testament of a deceased. These cases can result in bitter family disputes and result in an unrepairable division in a family. This short primer on many of the difficult and weighty decisions a circuit judge must make reveals why it is so important to look at a judicial candidate in a different way than you would a truly political candidate. In all of these cases you do not want a judge to be someone who was elected simply because they were a good politician. What we should be looking for are judges who are well educated; who are experienced in practicing law (not just reading law from a book); who have experience in the courtroom; and who have the highest integrity. When I refer to “experience practicing law” I mean a real lawyer, not just someone who holds a law license. A person who has dealt with the legal problems of other people and carried the weight of those problems on their shoulders. Some might say “experience in the courtroom” is not that important. I beg to differ. In a courtroom the judge does not have time, when there is an objection, to say, “hold on I need to research this.” A judge has to be prepared to decide the issue quickly and have the knowledge and confidence to act quickly. A judge who can do this instills confidence in those observing that the judge is competent and will be fair. A judge need to be in a position to understand the pressures and stress that are placed not only on the parties but witnesses, lawyers and jurors. A judicial candidate also should have the highest integrity. This is the most important attribute of a judge. Without integrity the parties, lawyers and the public wonder what is motivating any decision the judge makes. In order for our system to work the public (including jurors, lawyers and defendants) must feel like the judge is fair and honest. When the lawyers, jurors, parties or even spectators suspect the judge is anything other than honest our system begins to breakdown. Today our judicial elections are becoming more and more like races for a truly political office. You may think you want your judges to have a similar “political” philosophy to you or a candidate that you think will be friendly to business or the little man. This is the wrong way to look at these candidates. Everyone agrees that the job of a judge is simply to follow the law and constitution and let the law dictate the result in a particular case. If a judge has integrity the judge will follow the law even when the judge does not think the result is the best result. They will follow the law and hope the legislature will act to correct any flaws in the law. When judges are elected not because of their integrity, but because of the political leanings, we face the real possibility that the judge will decide what result “should be reached” and then try to find the law to support the result. A good judge will ignore personal political philosophy and simply follow the law to a result dictated by the law and nothing else. After an election involving judicial elections anyone who looks at the election results will notice a significant difference in the number of votes cast in the judicial election and in the other races on the ballot. When you go to vote be prepared to vote in the judicial elections. Before you do vote look into the background of the candidates, their education, their experience as a lawyer, their experience in court and their integrity. At the very least contact a lawyer and ask them, not how to vote, but to tell you about both candidates and then make your own decision of which candidate represents the kind of judge you would want hearing your case.