January 09, 2016

Circuit Riders and Volunteers: Small-Town Justice Heroes

Hannah Hayes

When Donna Taylor left her Omaha practice to set up shop in Neligh, Nebraska (pop. 1,542), she was somewhat taken aback when the farmhouse she rented came with chickens. “The smallest town I ever lived in was Omaha,” says Taylor, who had come from Denver to attend Creighton University in Omaha. “But those chickens were so cute when they were little yellow baby hatchlings. When they became full grown, I had to load them up into a horse trailer and haul them to a lady who processed them for $1 a chicken for the freezer.”

More than 30 years later, Taylor is hooked on the locale. She’s now judge of the county court in the Seventh Judicial District, which covers seven counties. “People ask me if I like my job, and I tell them I have the best job in the State of Nebraska,” says Taylor. “I’d rather be a county judge than a supreme court judge or a judge in any metropolitan area.”

According to the Court Statistics Project (a joint venture of the National Center for State Courts and the Conference of State Court Administrators based in Williamsburg, Virginia), an estimated 94 million cases are heard annually in courtrooms across the country. Many of these cases are heard by county judges and magistrates who “ride the circuits” in small towns and rural areas covering large territories with limited resources.

Shortage of Lawyers

Across the country, small towns and rural areas are experiencing a shortage of lawyers, and judicial seats also can be difficult to fill. In some areas, volunteer lawyers become magistrates and step up to duty, while other small towns and villages employ “justice courts,” where the magistrate may not be a lawyer.

The Superior Court in Vermont, for example, has five divisions. Three of the five divisions employ magistrates or assistant judges. “In Vermont, many lawyers may live on a farm and practice part time and volunteer in the bar association,” says Mary Ashcroft, legal access coordinator for the Vermont Bar Association and a volunteer child support magistrate for the Town of Rutland. “We do have full-time sitting magistrates, but in small towns, the potential arises for conflicts of interest.”

For instance, Ashcroft recently stepped in as an acting magistrate when the full-time magistrate had a conflict with one of the parties.

“In a small area, it gets to be quite complicated,” says lawyer Barbara Harcourt, who is serving as a judge and recalls being challenged because she had the same last name as one of the parties in the case. “Recusing means that time frames for the case can be really long if getting another judge is difficult.”

Harcourt served for 18 years as judge of the Circuit Court for Rush County in central Indiana, where she notes, “we have more hogs than we do people.”

Harcourt, who today develops training programs for the Indiana court system, helped create a six-week online course for judges in remote and rural areas for the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, which is partnered with the ABA Judicial Division and offers CLE classes as well as certificate and degree programs. Topics addressed include the challenges of having a high public profile, isolation, and a lack of financial resources.

Wearing a Virtual Robe

The communal aspect of small towns and rural communities can be a double-edged sword. While every judge is familiar with the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, her neighbor most likely is not. “It can be very difficult for judges in small communities going to Little League games and the grocery store,” Harcourt says. “Suddenly a litigant appears and wants to talk about your case.”

Nancy Sunukjian was in private practice in upstate New York before she was appointed judge for the Town of Waterford in 2010. Where to shop provided a dilemma once she took the bench. “I don’t go to the same stores because I prefer not to run into my constituency. I’m not good with faces, and I can’t remember if I know them from court or my high school days.” And this could be awkward, she notes, because “everyone knows the judge.”

Isolation is another issue that impacts judges in remote areas, and many choose not to get involved in clubs or organizations. For example, a judge, justice, or magistrate cannot sell Girl Scout cookies because that would constitute soliciting funds. The lack of a legal community or peers is something that often brings people to her online class, Harcourt says. “We conduct Web conferences, and we have a posting board where participants can interact.”

In Taylor’s district, three judges cover seven counties. They used to rotate criminal and juvenile duties each year. Each judge in her home county presided in either juvenile, criminal, or civil court. The judge responsible for civil court took the remaining four counties as well.

“When you were a circuit rider, you could go for months before you saw another colleague,” Taylor notes.

Two years ago, the judges divided the counties evenly among them, with all three of them handling cases in the seventh county. “Now I see both of my colleagues once a week, and that helps—you don’t feel quite so isolated,” explains Taylor, who still maintains a complicated schedule. “I go to Knox County on the first and third Thursday and Antelope County on the first and third Wednesday; on Monday and Tuesday I’m in Madison County, where I also have juvenile court and criminal court every other Wednesday and every other Thursday; Friday is for jury trials and hearings that are going to be contested and take a long time.”

Fortunately, Taylor says she likes to drive, but Nebraska weather and long commutes can also take their toll. Ashcroft agrees: “You can imagine that in Vermont traveling in winter can be very challenging.”

Many Hats, Few Resources

In the southeast corner of Alaska, Mary Kay Germain is the only magistrate for the town of Yakutat. With a population of approximately 500 (except during fishing season when it ranges from 700 to 900), Yakutat can only be reached by ferry or plane. Planes fly in twice a day, and the ferry operates twice a month: once going north and once going south.

“I hear a lot of different kinds of cases, mostly fishing or game violations, search warrants, small claims, marriages, and criminal arraignments,” Germain says.

Germain, who is not a lawyer, applied for the job when she moved to Yakutat with her husband. “In the interview, they said, ‘we can teach you most things, but we can’t teach you common sense,’” recalls Germain, who previously worked for the State of Alaska as an administrative officer. “I run this entire courthouse doing all the administrative work: financial, clerking, and being the judge. And I love it!”

Felony cases come first before Germain, who assigns them to a superior court and arranges for a lawyer. “In Yakutat, we don’t have any resident attorneys, and the district attorney and public defender are out of Juneau. So it’s all done over the telephone.”

Germain’s courtroom is equipped with speakerphones, and court is often held via a conference call. “If the defense attorney needs to talk to the client, I’ll step out of the courtroom and the district attorney will hang up and call back.”

Many states have similar systems. Arizona, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina are some of the states that do not require judges with limited jurisdiction to have a law degree. While not as remote as Yakutat, many small towns are in crisis because of a lack of lawyers and other resources,. This can make a judge’s job extremely difficult.

In recent years, New York State’s system of town and village magistrates has come under fire because many lack legal experience. Justices are required to be certified, and even with a legal background they must take advanced training, according to Sunukjian. In addition to being the town justice for Waterford, Sunukjian is director of the Office of Court Support unit within the Office of Court Administration.

In recent years, the state has expanded and improved upon education and training and tightened oversight, but like other jurisdictions across the country, resources remain tight. “In New York, we’re fortunate to have alternative courts available, such as drug court and domestic violence court,” Sunukjian says.

Other jurisdictions are not so fortunate. Robin Schmidt had a private practice in Watford City, North Dakota, before she was appointed to the bench in 2013. The town had tripled in size since 2010 because of increased oil drilling, and the area went from zero to two judges. “One of the major challenges is that we don’t have a lot of resources for drug and alcohol treatment facilities,” Schmidt says. “You can’t assign people to treatment because it doesn’t exist, so we end up with a revolving door of crime.”

Best Job in the World

Despite the challenges, most judges like the feeling of a tight-knit community and the autonomy that comes from being in a small town. “I do everything from traffic to attempted murder—anything that could possibly come before a court,” Schmidt explains. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Taylor, who was the Antelope County attorney before she was appointed to the bench, says she’s always encouraged lawyers to consider trying rural areas. As county attorney, she was the go-to person in the county when people had questions or needed help. “I felt what I did was really important,” she notes. “I think that creates a great opportunity for young lawyers who want to make a difference.”

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.