Judgment day: 6 lawyers vie for juvenile court bench
Six attorneys sat before their Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association peers to argue why they were the best person to take a soon-to-be vacated seat in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court when Judge Dwight Johnson retires January 31.
The bar's judicial endorsements committee will rate the six candidates following the December 17 forum, and the person deemed most qualified gets the local nod and is almost always a shoo-in for confirmation by the General Assembly. All the legislators for in the 16th Judicial Circuit are notified of the bar's recommendation.
The last time the bar weighed in was in 2006 when Judge Paul Peatross retired from Albemarle Circuit Court. None of the seven attorneys were deemed "most qualified," but two were rated "highly qualified," and those two were recommended to the General Assembly, where Cheryl Higgins was elected to the seat, according to Palma Pustilnik, who is on the bar's endorsement committee.
This spring, for another vacancy in juvenile court, the General Assembly named Rick Moore, a former Albemarle prosecutor who was fired in 2008 after Denise Lunsford was elected commonwealth's attorney, without the endorsement of the local bar. "We did not have enough notice to go through the process," says Pustilnik.
Three of the candidates are prosecutors, and two are from the same office: Elizabeth Killeen and Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell come from the Charlottesville office; Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe handles juvenile cases for Albemarle.
Judge Jay Swett presided over the forum, asking the candidates about their experience, their hardest cases, and how they'll deal with the stress and isolation of sitting on the bench.
David Franzen is with Feil, Pettit & Williams and has 26 years experience practicing commercial litigation, domestic relations, and criminal defense. He also serves as a substitute judge.
The most difficult cases he's dealt with in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court are those dealing with the termination of parental rights. Franzen talked about seeing parents whose love for their child is so evident, yet they're so unable to do the right thing. A judge must rule "in the most cautious, deliberate manner possible," he said.
He was a naval officer on a destroyer before going to law school, and cites those as learning experiences for dealing with stress. Franzen, who sings in his church choir, also advised, "Lawyers are wonderful people. We all need to have friends that are not [lawyers]."
Elizabeth Killeen has been assigned the juvenile court cases in the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. She noted that the setting is crucial when the testimony of children is involved.
Killeen's parents were public school teachers. "They instilled those values of public service," she said. And to decompress from the job, she and her partner are theater buffs who frequent the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton.
Her most difficult case, she said, was one in which a woman forgot her infant was strapped in the back seat of her car at the JAG School, and Killeen prosecuted it as a homicide. "The case was wrenching emotionally," she said, but she felt strongly that the child get a voice in court, even though his mother was found not guilty.
Darby Lowe has worked in juvenile court since she passed the bar in 1992, and the life of a Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney dealing with child abuse, she pointed out, is already "incredibly stressful."
Her worst cases were a homicide involving an infant, or the repeated sexual abuse of children as young as four. "Those were the most difficult," she said.
In some cases, she said, "My duty called for one thing and my humanity for another."
As a judge, Lowe said her experience going into homes in Southwood and in Glenmore has taught that regardless of socioeconomic levels, "All people who have been victimized are the same."
Helen Phillips is a Bristol attorney who's practiced for law for 25 years, including a stint as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Madison, as well as in private practice there. Her ties to juvenile court range from possession of tobacco cases all the way to capital murder, she said at the forum.
She's an elder in her church and confessed that coming from the birthplace of country music, she's started writing songs as a stress reliever.
Her guiding principle for judgeship: "Treat everyone the way you'd like to be treated."
Deborah Tinsley opened her private practice in Louisa in 1995, but cited experience as a juvenile advocate while a third-year law student at University of Richmond. Like Franzen, Tinsley, serves as a substitute judge. She grew up in a single-parent household.
"We had very little money," she said. "I knew the only way to go to University of Richmond was to work."
She's dealt with abuse and neglect cases. "You'd think after 25 years, you'd think nothing would shock you about what parents do to their children," she said.
The benefits of dealing with such heartbreaking cases is the chance to make a difference. Tinsley recalled a shaken baby case in which the injuries were so bad she wondered whether to pray for the infant to survive surgery. Today, 12 years later, the child can walk and lives in a home free from abuse.
Claude Worrell, who has been prosecuting for the city since 1992, was one of those who sought the Bar's recommendation in 2006. "It is a longstanding hope of mine to be a judge, he said. "Juvenile court is the place where you can make the largest impact."
As a soccer dad and upcoming Jefferson Swim League president, Worrell doesn't worry about isolation if he sits on the bench because he's so busy with his children.
And he expressed frustration that cases involving poor people often fall under the larger community's radar. With a soft jab at one of his rivals, he said, "The fact that [defendants] can afford Mr. Franzen shouldn't matter whether they get a fair trial."
The Bar Association has not provided a timeline for giving its recommendations.