McARTHUR — Vinton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeff Simmons will soon finish out the longest tenure of any judge to fill that role in Vinton County.
Simmons has been the county’s Common Pleas Court judge for more than 21 years, and his background in law dates back more than 40 years. He’s a graduate of Ohio University and The Ohio State University College of Law (now the Moritz College of Law).
He announced his retirement earlier this year, and he will finish his tenure at the end of February. His term is set to end in 2022, and his vacant seat will be filled with the help of the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Vinton County Courthouse has changed in some ways since his start, Simmons said. For example, it didn’t always have air-conditioning. Simmons remembers court employees opening windows during cooler parts of the day and then shutting them in hopes of lowering the interior temperature. Sure enough in the afternoon, though, all those taking up space in the courthouse were sweating through their suits.
The entire notion of courthouse security has also seen change over the years, Simmons noted. People who walk into courthouses today now step through metal detectors, which wasn’t protocol back in the day. Courthouses now typically have extensive camera systems to survey those going in and out of the building.
But technology has advanced far passed security cameras. The county’s courthouse received a $162,400 technology grant from the Ohio Supreme Court in order to update its court management system in 2018. Before then, the county’s court was utilizing a system called GBS Court Track. Now the court is utilizing CourtView 3, an instant-access system.
The courthouse also expanded its services in many ways. It wasn’t until 1997 when the court saw its Community Corrections program come on the scene. More recently, through grant funding, the court was able to implement a Drug Court program in 2019. Simmons noted the drug courts operate under a unique structure, falling under the umbrella of one coordinator. Simmons said this implementation of a drug court in Vinton County is part of a nationwide effort of encouraging courts not to send low-level offenders to jail facilities; rather, managing these low-level offenders locally can be cost-saving.
“Everything we do relates back to the community,” he said.
One thing about the courthouse hasn’t changed much, though, was the high ceiling and art deco design of the courtroom Simmons resided in. That room holds a lot of history and significance for Simmons. One of the only major alterations made to that space over the years was an update in the room’s carpet.
Simmons witnessed change outside of the courthouse, too, during his tenure as the Common Pleas Court judge.
For example, on the county-level, Simmons witnessed the passage of a school levy that had failed every time it appeared on the ballot years prior. The levy passed on the ballot in 1997, and the new school building was opened two years later. In addition to that, Simmons remembers the destruction of Lake Hope Lodge years back and the efforts of Vinton Countians to bring it back and keep it in the area.
On the state and national levels, Simmons has witnessed a staggering increase in opiate and methamphetamine cases.
“We’ve always seen drug cases,” he said. “But nothing like this.”
Those working in the criminal justice system, locally and beyond, have had to work through drug-related cases and other criminal cases parallely, with much more overlap between the two as time progressed. Simmons noted that the country has been shifting toward treatment and rehabilitation for low-level offenders, but in terms of prevention, education is key: the sooner, the better.
His role as judge, although rewarding in ways, was often difficult. He pointed to a capital murder case that happened years ago, for example. Although the nature of the job was very challenging during that time, Simmons noted the courthouse’s offices came together to help out in any way they could.
But that’s how he feels about Vinton County in general: people come together to face issues and support one another. He nodded to efforts to boost tourism in the area to serve as an example of this.
The retiring Common Pleas Court judge considers the typical day-in and day-out of his role to be one of the highlights of his tenure. For Simmons, with looking back on his past comes a lot of looking forward to the future: mostly looking forward to having a bit of a break. He doesn’t have specific goals or ideas at the moment, but he’s open and aware of opportunities that may come his way: maybe a retired visiting judge position, for example.
He has a few certain things in mind for spending his time, however: first, he wants to spend a lot more time with his family, and he’s excited to have more time to share with his grandchildren. Next, he looks forward to spending more time outdoors, exploring the hiking trails of the area.
He also knows that he won’t be moving to Florida for his retirement. He’d much rather spend it in the place he’s always called home.