The final debate in the Athens County Probate Juvenile Judge race was marked by both differences and grief, as the virtual forum was held just days after the death of the Honorable Robert W. Stewart.
The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County (LWVAC), was the first to be held virtually, a decision that was made in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Candidates Kenneth E. Ryan (R) and Zachary L. Saunders (D) both agreed to participate int he virtual forum.
Forum moderator Tanya Conrath began the evening by remarking upon the death of Judge Stewart, 70, who was in his 18th year as Athens County Probate Juvenile Judge. Stewart died on Saturday, Sept. 12, the cause of death has not been released.
“I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Judge Robert ‘Bob’ Stewart,” Conrath said. “He would’ve handed the baton to one of the candidates tonight. Judge Stewart treated those who entered his court with dignity and humanity. He was held in the highest esteem by the legal community and the Athens community.”
In 2015 Stewart was awarded the Wiseman Award by the LWVAC. The award was in recognition of “his deep commitment to the welfare of the children of Athens county.”
“Our hearts go out to his wife Machelle, his daughters, Riley and Rachel, his family and many many friends who will miss him dearly,” Conrath said with stirred emotion.
Stewart’s career in Athens County began long before he started as Probate Juvenile Court Judge in 2003. He previously served as a magistrate in the probate/juvenile section of the Athens County Common Please Court. He was elected to the Judge position following the retirement of Judge Edward Robe.
According to Magistrate Jonathan Perrin, the cases that Stewart was currently presiding over, or would preside over until the incumbent takes the bench will still be seen.
Both the Ohio Supreme Court and Governor Mike DeWine have the authority to appoint a judge to sit in Stewart’s stead.
“We have several judges in the region that are qualified,” Perrin said. It has yet to be determined who will oversee the cases until January.
Both candidates looking to succeed Stewart have worked closely with the late judge for years, something both remarked upon during the debate.
“It was my privilege to know Judge Stewart and to practice in front of him,” Ryan said. “Judge Stewart’s influence on my practice and my understanding as a lawyer cannot be overestimated.”
Ryan’s opening remarks went on to speak of his experience, including representing 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. He also spoke of his experience working with over 600 cases involving mental health.
In opening remarks, Saunders extended his condolences to the Stewart family, stating that he was a pillar in the Athens Community.
“He was a good human and even a better family man. He was a judge that I will strive to be,” Saunders said.
Saunders went on to discuss his primary campaign, stating that he went door to door to over 2,000 houses, believe that it showcases his “hard work and determination.”
“I will take that to the bench,” Saunders said.
Saunders highlighted his legal background. Saunders said that he has worked a wide variety of cases, from murder to traffic tickets. He began working in the Prosecutors office in 2015, where he realized his passion to be a judge for juvenile court.
After opening remarks, the candidates were asked pre-submitted community questions. Each was given 90 seconds to answer the question.
One community question was what changes need to be made to the justice system where children are concerned.
Saunders answered that the focus of Juvenile court should be to rehabilitate rather than punish so as to curb repeat offenders.
“So how do we do that? We need to provide them avenues for success. We need to provide structure in their life,” Saunders said. To that end, Saunders said a focus on mental health needs to be made.
“I would employ a mental health officer, a mental health liaison in the courtroom where we are going to hit this epidemic head-on. We are going to make sure that these kids get the mental health treatment that they deserve,” Saunders said.
Saunders also shared that there is a victim mediation program that he would like to institute. This is a way to hold people accountable and make them come face-to-face with wrong-doings without being a traditional punishment. He also looks to utilize community service programs.
Ryan looks to build on the system that Stewart had already built. To do this, Ryan stated that cases must be handled individually, as children are individuals and each requires something different.
“You need to meet a child where they are,” Ryan said.
He would like to implement a program that has been proven successful in Fairfield County.
“It meets kids and identifies them in different categories,” Ryan said.
Candidates took turns answering each question asked of them by the community. The forum is available in full on Facebook on the City of Athens page, Ohio — News and Information Page, or on the League of Women Voters of Athens County page. Additionally, the forum will be replayed on the Government Channel 1024.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Voting can be done in-person or by mail. Ballot requests for mail-in voting must be submitted by Oct. 31. Applications can be found on the Board of Elections website, boe.ohio.gov/athens/