For the first time in almost 18 years, Morgan County Circuit Court Judge Sherrie Paler, a Democrat, has Republican opposition at the polls.
When she and two other judges took office in 1995, they faced thousands of cases that had piled up under the administrations of their predecessors. After about three years in office, Paler and the other judges had brought cases to manageable status.
Attorney Jennifer Howell, 34, is Paler’s GOP challenger in the Nov. 6 general election. Howell worked as an assistant district attorney for about five years and has been in private practice in Decatur for almost two years.
Circuit judges preside over criminal, civil and domestic cases and are top administrators of the judicial system. Although they are elected in county elections, they are state officials.
The Daily posed questions to the candidates.
Q: You have been on the bench three terms. When you were elected, what experience did you bring with you?
A: I brought with me over 13½ years of experience as an attorney in private practice. I handled criminal, civil, domestic relations, worker's compensation, probate, juvenile and bankruptcy cases. I also handled business-related matters such as incorporations, preparation of financing agreements and Uniform Commercial Code documents, leases and contracts. I handled cases in federal court and before administrative hearing panels.
Q: Is it important for a judge to have experience before presiding over cases, specifically capital murder cases?
A: I believe it is vitally important for a judge to have as broad a base of legal experience as possible before assuming the bench. There is simply no time for a circuit judge to be trained in different areas of law if they have never dealt with the types of cases that will come before them on a daily basis. Being a circuit judge requires knowledge of the rules of evidence and how they are applied in the real world. You must make decisions sometimes in an instant, which requires a thorough knowledge of different areas of law. The judge cannot take a break during a trial every few minutes to find the answer to issues that come before them that they have not dealt with as an attorney.
Q: Based on recent past elections, voters in Morgan County overwhelmingly put Republicans in office. Some candidates switched from the Democratic Party to GOP. You didn't change. Tell us why.
A: I ran on the Democratic ticket in 1994 and I was elected. I ran on the Democratic ticket in 2000 and I was elected, and I ran on the Democratic ticket in 2006 and I was elected. I am the same person today that I was in those years, except that I now have almost 18 years' experience being a trial judge. Why make an issue of partisanship by switching? I firmly believe that if all it takes to be the best qualified candidate is that you are a Republican or Democrat, without looking at the candidate's experience, knowledge, judgement, discernment and demeanor, the court system is in real, deep trouble.
Q: Are you pleased with rulings you've made in criminal and civil cases during your tenure on the bench?
A: I am satisfied that my decisions have been rendered after careful consideration of the law and the evidence before me. I have made difficult decisions that affect the lives of the people before me, and I believe I have done so with fairness and impartiality.
Q: Are you fair and impartial toward defendants, their attorneys and prosecutors?
A: A judge must be impartial. All defendants have a right to come before a judge who is not biased against them. A state or municipal entity prosecuting cases is entitled to have a judge who is not biased against them. The judge's job is to be faithful to the law. A Judicial Canon of Ethics expects the judge to be "unswayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism." I treat the defendants, attorneys and prosecutors who come before me as I want to be treated, with fairness, respect and impartiality.
Q: Do you believe your decisions are tempered with mercy while ruling with the law in criminal cases?
A: Mercy denotes compassion. I have compassion for victims of crime. I have compassion for people who have been convicted of crime. I treat people how I want to be treated. However, compassion does not necessarily mean leniency. I believe my decisions in criminal cases are fair, but firm based on the law and the facts.
Q: Why should voters re-elect you?
A: I am the most qualified candidate for my job, and my 17-plus years of experience on the trial bench proves this to be true. As one of the circuit judges, I have tried more than 10 capital murder cases, over a dozen murder cases, and countless drug, child abuse, rape and robbery cases, to name a few. I have tried hundreds of domestic relations, workers' compensation cases and civil jury trials, all giving me unparalleled judicial experience. The experience I have as circuit judge is invaluable in meeting the challenges the court system is facing in these hard economic times. ... I do not need to be trained in the law or the workings of the judicial system.
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