Three area attorneys made their case to the public as the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association prepared to make its recommendation for a new circuit court judge.
The Thursday event was the latest step in the process to fill an upcoming vacancy in Virginia’s 16th Judicial Circuit prompted by the retirement of Judge Richard E. Moore. A presiding judge for Charlottesville and Fluvanna County, Moore announced last month that he would be retiring at the end of his eight year term on Nov. 30.
Although the General Assembly is in charge of nominating and filling the vacancy, the bar association has historically held public interviews for attorneys interested in becoming judges.
The three attorneys seeking the judge’s chair are Nina-Alice Antony, senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the city; André Hakes, a criminal defense attorney; and Areshini Pather, deputy commonwealth’s attorney for the city.
Moderated by retired judge Bob Downer, the attorneys gave opening statements and were asked nine questions related to experience, perception of how a judge should operate, and the role of court, among other topics.
Antony, who currently serves as the violent crime prosecutor for the city commonwealth’s attorney office, highlighted her decade of trial work and belief in the system that allows citizens to bring their grievances to court.
“I think that system needs a strong guardian and that’s what I believe a judge is and should be,” Antony said. “A good judge is someone who is intelligent, fair minded, patient, humble and yet at the same time decisive, and I have all of these qualities.”
Hakes, a partner at the Charlottesville law firm of Tucker Griffin Barnes, emphasized the diversity of her 25-year experience, which includes criminal defense and a wealth of civil law experience.
“I did bankruptcy, I did construction litigation, I did partition suits, adverse possession, guardianship – you name it, I did it,” Hakes said. “But criminal defense has definitely been sort of where I’ve landed during the latter half of my career.”
Pather shared her experiences growing up as a person of color in South Africa during apartheid, which saw her and her family persecuted by an unjust system. During her 18 years of legal experience, Pather said she has worked on both sides of the aisle and has learned the value of compassion and kindness for both victims and those charged with crimes.
“The court sees people every day who are different, but just because you’re different doesn’t mean that justice should be different. It should be fair to everyone,” Pather said. “I was born in a country without justice that was fair or equal and now I have a chance to serve the judiciary of our district at the highest level.”
The first question posed was what the candidates believe are the two most important qualities of a circuit court judge and how have they demonstrated them.
Though difficult to reduce to two qualities, Hakes said integrity and respect were the most important qualities a judge could have.
“I do a lot of cross-examining people on not their best day, and there are people who have potentially been through horrible things, and I try to treat those people with as much respect as I possibly can,” she said. “I have to cross examine them, I have to try to win my client’s case, but I try not to do unnecessary harm to them.”
Pather said the most important qualities were fairness and transparency. Fairness is about access to the courthouse, no matter a person’s socio-economic, racial or language background, she said.
“I remember two cases that I had with victims who did not speak English and if we hadn’t got an interpreter, if we hadn’t gotten a language line, they would not have been able to have access to justice,” she said. “The courtroom doors can’t close just because somebody is different, or someone speaks a different language.”
A judge must be willing to listen while also being decisive, Antony said. Listening is particularly crucial as a judge must be open to all reasonable arguments and able to inspect and apply all relevant law.
“One of the things that I pride myself on as a prosecutor, throughout my career, is the ability to do just that,” she said. “As prosecutors, we are faced with individuals who come to us either as victims, and sometimes even as defendants, and the ability to listen, the ability to take a phone call to listen to someone’s side is incredibly important.”
Later, the attorneys were asked for their thoughts on the role of mental illness on individuals in the court system.
Antony said mental illness is something that the courts system has only begun to understand and address, citing the local district courts’ therapeutic docket, which emphasizes treatment over incarceration.
“The court is the first place that an individual with a mental health illness, or who might be suffering from the effects of some sort of mental health illness, can be heard by somebody who understands that what is happening to them may not be their fault,” she said. “The things that they are going through or experiencing are a result of an illness and should be treated as such and not the result of a defective character or a defect in who they are as a person.”
During the first half of her career, Hakes said she worked as special justice at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and would hear cases involving moving inmates to the mental health wing.
“I felt then, and I still feel now as an attorney who represents people who have mental health issues, that we are not doing a very good job of serving these people in our society,” she said. “I think the court has a limited ability to address these things without some help from the other branches of government.”
Pather also emphasized the role of alternative dockets, citing the efforts of the community to fund and get these services up and running. Under state code, Pather said if there is a question about someone’s competency to stand trial then the court has the ability to raise and address the issue.
“As Ms. Antony said, we have to talk more about mental health. When I was a public defender, if my clients were in a crisis, a disorderly conduct or a traffic stop can really quickly lead to something that’s violent,” she said. “We have to talk about how our criminal justice system can be more adept at handling cases involving mental illness. I wish that there was a way to fund even just an across the board psychological evaluation that the courts could rely on.”
The bar association will soon announce its rankings. According to association president Llezelle Dugger, the attorneys will receive rankings of either highly recommended, recommended or not recommended.
Although the local bar’s recommendations do carry weight, Dugger said where the new judge will sit is decided by the 16th District’s judges, which include Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Madison and Orange.