Judge this: Hizzonor Helvin's gone fishin'

Here's the downside of being a judge: You can't have a beer with your lunch at Court Square Tavern because people might say, "He's drunk on the bench," or "Look at the guy ruling on drunk driving cases boozing it up."

Steve Helvin, Albemarle General District Court judge for 21 years, knows about avoiding the appearance of impropriety. That's why he likes to take off to the Florida Keys for three months to fish and bask in the anonymity. When people ask what he does, he says, "I worked for the state, and they look at me and think, 'highway flagman.'"

The youngest jurist appointed to the bench in Albemarle County in 1980, Helvin says he's tried more cases than any judge in the county. He retired last year, but still teaches law students and judges part time, taking "the cases no one else wants."

If he were to give advice to a new judge, it would be to not make decisions based on stereotypes. Helvin confesses his own bias: "I never liked people who look like the bully in my third grade class and I can't decide a case based on that."

Inquiring minds also want to know what judges have on under those judicial robes? Helvin claims he always wore a coat and tie, but fantasized about ripping off his robe to reveal a Hawaiian shirt and shorts underneath.

And the one time he did wear shorts and boat shoes on a morning when he was leaving for vacation, he ran into a woman a month later who said, "I remember you you're the judge who didn't wear socks."

Helvin offers one consolation for those who've got a court date in their future: "Everybody goes through court around here at some time."

Age: 59

What brought you here? A doctor at Martha Jefferson Hospital in 1943.

What's worst about living here? I don't like January, February, March so I go to Key Largo.

Favorite hangout? Court Square Tavern

Most overrated virtue? I think the idea of being virtuous is. Too much pressure.

What would people be surprised to know about you? When I quit smoking, I took up needlepoint. I enjoyed it.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd like to lose some weight.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? My accomplishments are modest. I'm very lucky to have been a judge, lawyer, and to teach law and have that variety in my career.

What do people find most annoying about you? I find a lot of them guilty.

Whom do you admire? Jefferson, Churchill, Lincoln

Favorite book? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What subject causes you to rant? Talking-head lawyers on television and dishonest politicians who are self-serving of either party.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? My son thinks it's time for me to get into the 20th century because I'm not there yet.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? After September 11, I really worry about liberty and freedom for my son's generation.

What do you drive? A Jeep handed down from my wife

What's in your car tape player right now? Jimmy Buffett

What's your next journey? Key Largo for three months

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? For years I've given people the right to take the Fifth Amendment. I'm going to take that now.

What do you regret? There's not a lot I regret.

Favorite comfort food? My wife's apple pie

What's always in your refrigerator? My wife controls that, and she doesn't let me do much with it.

Must-see TV? Iron Chef, Changing Spaces, and occasionally college football and basketball.

Favorite cartoon? Shoe, Garfield

Describe a perfect day. Any day you wake up and feel good and can do what you want to do. My mother-in-law is 95 years old, and we walk every morning. She said to me one morning, "When I get old, I'm not going to be able to do this." I like that attitude.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I'd like to catch the world-record fish in the Gulf Stream at Key Largo.

Who'd play you in the movie? Any extra could do it.

Most embarrassing moment? In college I was visiting my wife at her college. I slept in a friend's car and got down to my underwear because I had an interview for admission to law school in the morning. The police arrested me because I didn't have the car's registration and was not fully clothed. They didn't charge me, but I had to hitchhike to my interview in rumpled clothes.

Best advice you ever got? My father used to say, never give your word of honor lightly, and once you do, never break it.

Favorite bumper sticker? So many species, so little time.


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