Judges Forum

Zachary L. Saunders answers a question during the forum. Each candidate is given time to answer the crowd’s questions.

The four candidates vying for the position of Athens County Probate Juvenile Judge had their opportunity tell the community why they are best suited for the job during Candidate Forum night on Thursday, Feb. 6.

The event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County, was the first in this year’s Candidate Forum series, leading up to the March primaries. Around 50 people were in attendance for the event at the Community Center.

After an introduction by moderator Tanya Conrath, candidates Rusty Rittenhouse (D), Zachary L. Saunders (D), Scott M. Robe (R) and Kenneth E. Ryan (R) each gave an opening statement, summarizing why they were the correct candidate for the position.

Saunder’s opening remarks detailed his legal background. Saunders is a graduate of Ohio University and currently works in the Prosecutors Office. Saunders said that he has worked a wide variety of cases, from murder to traffic tickets, but after working on child abuse cases in the Prosecutors office, he realized his passion to be a judge for juvenile court. “Juvenile court takes a special person, I’m that candidate,” Saunders said.

Rittenhouse opened by stating why he was a candidate. “I’m running for judge out of a sense of civic duty. When you go to Juvenile Probate Court it may be the most important day of your life,” Rittenhouse said, going on to say that those in that court deserve the most experienced judge they can get. Rittenhouse stated that he is the only candidate that has experience as a judge, as he has served as an acting judge for the Athens County Municipal Court since 2015.

Ryan began by acknowledging incumbent Judge Robert Stewart. “I’ve learned a great deal from him in the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in probate court during my career,” Ryan said. Ryan went on to point out that he has been appointed by Judge Stewart to represent over 100 children in child abuse and neglect cases. Ryan’s experience working with children began before his law career, as he was formerly a teacher with Trimble School District.

Robe, a long time Athens resident, took the time to outline who he is, talking about his family background and his ten children and the multiple years he spent coaching and being involved in his children’s lives. “I declared as a candidate because those years of experience made me realize I need to serve my community. It is the duty of a judge to listen,” Robe said. The importance of listening was one of Robe’s main talking points throughout the forum.

After opening remarks, the floor was open for questions, with the first question traditionally going to a member of the media. The Athens Messenger was given this honor, and opened by asking what the most important aspect of the position is.

“The most important aspect is to give them hope,” Saunders answered. “I have plans to make them succeed.” Saunders went on to state that Athens is an impoverished county, and many times children coming through the court system are missing structure in their lives. Saunders believes that is something that as judge he would be able to help instill.

Rittenhouse believes the most important thing about juvenile court is to provide rehabilitation, rather than retribution. “I believe a lot of what children experience of why they end up in court is because of prior trauma,” Rittenhouse said.

Ryan believes that the key is to truly understand the situation of each child. “I think there’s absolutely no question, that the most important thing when you’re dealing with children and helping to get them to see where they can be, is to know where they are,” Ryan said.

Robe came back to the importance of listening. “I think the key thing is to listen,” going on to say that a judge must listen first to the law, then to the child and the situation and see when intervention is needed.

Ten more questions from the audience followed, with each candidate given time to answer. Questions from the audience ranged from the candidates thoughts on how to reduce the trauma associated with a court appearance to what, if any, role should religion play in the judge’s decision.

The event ended with each candidate giving a closing statement before dispersing to speak with voters one-on-one.

The crowd seemed pleased with the event. Athens City Council Member Sarah Grace attended the forum and was pleased with the outcome. “I think there were a lot of really good questions, to the substance of what it’s like to be a Juvenile Probate Judge,” Grace said.

Those who were unable to attend will have the opportunity to watch a recorded version of the forum. According to the League of Women Voters the video will be posted to the Athens City website soon.

The next forum will be Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the Athens Community Center, Room A, for a forum on the 15th Congressional District Democratic candidates

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