By Sarah Mansheim
A nearly full slate of judicial hopefuls gathered at Hill and Holler last Sunday evening to introduce themselves to the public and sound off on their election platforms.
Early voting began Wednesday and ends May 7; the primary election season culminates on Tuesday, May 10. This year marks the first time judicial elections are non-partisan, so the May election will decide who become the next family and circuit court judges.
Running for Family Court Judge are incumbent David Sanders and challenger, attorney Martha Fleshman.
In introducing himself, Sanders spoke of his 30 years practicing law with nine years as family court judge.
When asked what makes a good judge, Sanders replied that an even temperament is crucial when dealing with such emotionally fraught cases as divorces and child custody disputes.
“A calm demeanor helps settle things down,” he said. Sanders continued that family court law allows for a lot of flexibility in his rulings, and that input from all parties, especially children, is relevant to how he rules.
Sanders noted that if reelected, he’d like to improve how hearings are scheduled in order to make the system more efficient, and also said he’d like to see the family court quarters be moved closer to the Greenbrier County Courthouse. Greenbrier County Family Court is housed on South Court Street about a block and a half from the courthouse. The distance between the two entities creates both an inconvenience and a security issue, he said, noting he’d also like to have a bailiff on family court property at all times.
His opponent, Fleshman, pointed to her years as a guardian ad litem (GAL), a person the court appoints to investigate what solutions would be in the “best interests of a child,” and her own personal experience of divorcing and arguing in family court over custody of her own child has offered her a unique experience that can give her an element of empathy, should she be elected family court judge.
“Being a parent is so important as a family court judge because there are so many kids (in the system),” she said.
Fleshman cited the backup in family court as something she’d like to work on if elected; currently, it takes a month to eight weeks to get a hearing scheduled. When asked what advice she’d give to attorneys who would appear before her, she said she’d encourage negotiations that occur outside of their clients’ hearing times, which could free up more time in court to make decisions and move cases forward.
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There are two seats up for grabs in Greenbrier County Circuit Court (the 11th Judicial Circuit covers Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, so those two judges would preside over both counties’ circuit courts). Running for election in Division One are incumbent Robert Richardson, attorney Steve Hunter and Greenbrier County Assistant Prosecutor Britt Ludwig.
Making his case for reelection, Richardson pointed to his success over the last two years in clearing a backlog of cases, which, he said, reached upwards of 600 cases in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.
When asked about his judicial philosophy, Richardson remarked that following the law dictates all decisions he hands down from the bench. “I don’t consider myself to be an activist judge,” Richardson said.
“You have to know the law, to study the law. You have to set aside personal time to learn the law,” he said.
Ludwig pointed to her experience as assistant prosecutor, primarily focusing on juvenile and abuse and neglect cases, as tools she would use to be an effective circuit court judge. In addition to her professional experience, Ludwig said being a parent has also enhanced her understanding of dispute resolution.
She pointed to “fairness and access” as her primary judicial philosophy, and noted she’d like to partner with members of the bar to improve the system for all parties who find themselves in court.
Hunter, the third candidate for Division One, cited his many years as an attorney and past position of assistant prosecutor in Pocahontas County, when describing his experience in law practice.
“I’d be fair, compassionate and see that justice is truly done,” said Hunter. Further, he said, “I want to prove to Governor Tomblin that someone over 60 can be a judge.”
However, when asked what his greatest weakness was, Hunter quipped, “I’m old! But,” he said, “I’m a compassionate person. I’ve been practicing law for 43 years. If I can’t do it, it can’t be done.”
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Two candidates squared off for the debate over Division Two of the circuit judge election. Sitting Judge James Rowe opted to not file for reelection this year, and the three candidates seeking his seat are Greenbrier County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Dent, attorney Jeffrey Rodgers and Kanawha County Senior Assistant Prosecutor Fred Giggenbach.
Dent was not present at the event, citing a family emergency.
Giggenbach went first. Emphasizing his background growing up in White Sulphur Springs, Giggenbach strived to connect with the audience as a Greenbrier Countian, conjuring his father and mother, well known in White Sulphur Springs, as strong influences on his life.
“I feel like I’ve been training to be a judge my whole career,” said Giggenbach. “I have a fighting sense of justice and a wide range of experience across the spectrum.”
Rodgers went next, presenting his biography of growing up in Lewisburg, his mother a secretary for now Senior Status Judge Frank Jolliffe; and graduating from WVU. Rodgers operates a solo legal practice in Lewisburg.
“I want to provide an even playing field,” said Rodgers on his judicial aspirations. “I have a good ability to bring people together in a mediator role.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a judge,” he said. “I’m really happy to run.”