Only two candidates for the race for 10th Circuit Group 16 judge — Taylor Davidson and Larry Helms — made up the panel at the Tuesday, Aug. 5 candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Polk County. That was because the only other judicial race, for Group 2, had already been determined and Michelle Pincket will be on the bench. Her then-opponent, Christine Trakas Thornhill had withdrawn from the race this past July as part of a pre-trial intervention agreement with the State Attorney’s Office of Jerry Hill, which had investigated and determined deliberate financial campaign wrongdoing to circumvent state statutes had occurred.
The forum between Helms and Davidson followed an earlier forum with the six candidates — three of them incumbents — vying for seats on the Polk County Public Schools Board, in which only a small number of people were present, estimated between 25-35 people; a number of those chose not to remain in the Board of County Commissioners chamber following the school board presentation.
Quite often, each candidate’s response to questions posed mirrored one another, beginning with what each considered the two most important characteristics or traits a judge should possess. Davidson’s immediate answer was short.
“Intellect and temperament,” he said, who also took the opportunity to mention that unlike Helms, Davidson is board certified in two areas of the legal profession, which he did not elaborate were. He then tied in his answer to his belief what the court’s purpose is. “You have to let the people know the court is there for them.”
That includes giving anyone who appears in court respect and dignity.
“We have to always be mindful of the fact we are servants of the public,” he said. Judges need to be courteous, firm in their rulings, plus run the courtroom effectively.
Helms followed that by agreeing that intellect and temperament are important. He also added that in almost all courtroom situations that the majority of people are intimidated and in a state of awe when they appear before the bench.
“You are in a situation where people are not comfortable,” said Helms. “Only judges, clerks and sometimes lawyers are the only one comfortable.”
That, he said, also extends to how a judge treats to the people standing before him.
“You have to treat people with respect and dignity in order for them to have respect for the courts,” he said. “It goes without saying that the only other characteristic a judge has to have is a sense of fairness and impartiality.”
One area in which there was a marked difference arose with the second question, which Helms was given the opportunity to answer first. That question was whether county and circuit judges should be elected or appointed, and why.
“There are pros and cons to both. We tried the appointment process for years and it didn’t work as hoped,” he said. “The problem is … it becomes politicized and it becomes a breeding ground for political favors.”
At the same time, Helms pointed out problems exist with an election system.
“We can’t answer the questions people want to ask us. People want to know how we feel about issues and we can’t tell them.”
That was, he said, in part because judicial races are non-partisan. Also, that if a judge comes out with a stance on an issue while running as a candidate, what happens when that person, if elected judge, is faced with a court case on that very issue.
“I personally favor the appointment process as long as the judicial nominating commission does their job,” said Helm. “I think it’s the best way to do it, but the Constitution says we’re going to do it otherwise.”
“I would actually disagree,” said Davidson, who added he had served on the judicial nominating commission, and as a chairman.
“County court judges need to be elected because they are the frontline. They are the first face many of the public sees.”
The same holds true for circuit judges, he said. The issue as Davidson framed it was accountability, and with elections for county and circuit judges, accountability was paramount. However, he did say he believed judges who make up the appellate body should be appointed. “Their job is to do what everybody hates,” he said.