There are two contested judicial races in Sedgwick County — and the seven candidates vying for votes all say they’re the best choice to sit on the bench.
The upcoming retirements of District Judges Ben Burgess and Joe Kisner, perhaps best known for their work in criminal court, leave open judgeships in Sedgwick County District Court Divisions 7 and 17.
The contenders in the Aug. 7 Republican primary election in Division 7 are Jon Von Achen and Rodger L. Woods. Whoever wins will face Democrat Joni Cole in November’s general election.
Republicans Scott Anderson, Linda Kirby, David Lowden and Richard Paugh are running for the Division 17 seat. The winner of this race will take the judgeship after the primary election because there is no Democratic or third-party candidate.
District Judges Michael Hoelscher, David Kaufman, Richard Macias, Faith Maughan, Robb Rumsey and Seth Rundle are up for re-election but have no challengers.
Historically, judicial races haven’t gotten much attention on the local level. Sitting judges don’t often have challengers. And unless a voter is regularly in Sedgwick County District Court, he or she has little to go on when deciding between judicial candidates.
But judges make decisions that can have lasting impacts on people’s lives. They get involved when crimes are committed, handle divorces and decide which parent a child will live with, and decide who pays when lawsuits are filed.
Since 2006, the Wichita Eagle has collaborated with the Wichita Bar Association on a judicial and candidate survey every two years. The survey, conducted online on WBA’s website, asks attorneys who know and work with and in front of sitting and would-be judges to offer anonymous input on 10 aspects, including fairness, work ethic, how they apply the law and communication skills.
The survey included the sitting judges who are not up for re-election. (Find those results at https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/judging-the-judges/)
Participation in the survey has declined in recent years. This year, 136 attorneys rated at least one judge or candidate — about 13 percent of the roughly 1,050 attorneys registered to practice in the 18th Judicial District.
Karin Kirk, executive director of the Wichita Bar Association and Wichita Bar Foundation, said only about half of the attorneys registered go to court regularly. Based on that, she estimated survey participation at 26 percent. The last time the survey was conducted, in 2016, 222 lawyers participated.
Asked about the lower survey participation, Kirk pointed to the small number of contested races.
The number of responses each judge or candidate received varied: One received a single response while another received 65. No one received responses from all 136 participating attorneys.
Von Achen says he thinks he’s the best fit for the Division 7 job because he’s the only candidate who has “actually been a judge.” He spent five years as a municipal court judge in Kiowa and Winfield. On the bench, he liked to ensure that everyone involved in cases had a voice in court and that his rulings were “fully explained,” he said.
He has been an attorney for more than 17 years and is now in private practice.
Of the 21 attorneys who evaluated Von Achen, nine agreed that he is fair and ethical.
“I won’t lose sight of what it’s like to be sitting next to someone in court having to explain to them what the judge just said,” Von Achen said.
“I want to make sure when people walk out of my courtroom they understand what just happened, even if they don’t like it, and they feel like they’ve had their day in court.”
Woods says his broad legal experience makes him an ideal candidate for judge.
He spent the first four years of his career representing clients in criminal and civil cases in Reno and Sedgwick counties.
Now, he serves as district counsel and in constituent services for the Fourth Congressional District. He says his duties include providing legal advice to the district director in his office and helping veterans and members of the military navigate issues they encounter with the Veterans Administration and other agencies.
He does not have a separate courtroom practice.
Of the eight attorneys who evaluated Woods, seven agreed that he is fair, ethical and communicates clearly.
“As a military vet, I’ve learned to make decisions based on the best information and in a timely manner,” he said. “I have … a sense of fairness and professionalism that will translate well to serving on the bench.”
Cole is the only Democratic candidate in the race. She says she thinks party affiliation plays little if any role in the function of a district court judge and hopes voters will look past party labels.
She said for her, becoming a judge has “always kind of been a life pursuit.” Since October 2016, she has been facility legal counsel for El Dorado Correctional Facility — a job that most often involves representing the state in lawsuits brought by prisoners. Before that, she was in private practice and worked a variety of case types including defending clients in minor criminal matters, business litigation, some juvenile defense and other civil matters.
Cole says her broad experience, careful and thoughtful demeanor and the philosophies she has about law and in life make her an ideal judicial candidate.
“I have a very positive and upbeat outlook, and I approach situations in a manner with the goal of getting them resolved instead of making things worse,” she said.
Only one attorney rated Cole in the survey. She says she thinks that’s because she’s been in government service for the past few years.
Republican voters have four candidates to pick from in Division 17. All are practicing attorneys, but with differing experience.
Anderson says he thinks it is time to bring “a little bit of balance back to the bench.” Most of the sitting judges are former prosecutors, he says.
He has handled more than 1,000 criminal cases, including 50 bench trials and more than a dozen jury trials, in the past five years working both as a Sedgwick County public defender and previously as a Wichita municipal prosecutor.
At 36, Anderson is the youngest candidate. He says his age would lend a fresh perspective and that his experience with contemporary technology — such as social media — will be useful in cases where it’s an issue.
Half or more of the 24 attorneys who rated him in the survey agreed that he is fair, ethical and knowledgeable about the law.
“At the end of the day, you can look in law books how to handle family law and probate, but you can’t look in law books and figure out how to handle trial issues,” he said.
“I’m the only candidate that can bring current trial experience to the bench.”
The 2018 election marks Kirby’s fourth run for judge in Sedgwick County. A practicing attorney for 29 years, she says citizens deserve a judge who has experience in the areas of law “that they actually go to court for,” like civil disputes, family and probate issues and juvenile cases.
She is in private practice and represents clients in non-criminal cases.
“I have seen the need in our court for judges who understand those areas,” Kirby said, adding: “I genuinely believe the people who are not criminals need judges who have spent time listening to clients and … helping guide them through the legal process.”
Half of the 42 attorneys who rated Kirby on the survey said she treated people fairly without regard to race, gender or sexual orientation. Sixteen of 42 respondents said she is fair; 19 said she is ethical. Kirby says she has worked to improve her scores and feels like she has accomplished that.
“I think probably the most important thing is just to try to be as good of an attorney and prepare to be as good a judge as I can possibly be,” Kirby said.
Lowden says 26 years as a prosecutor have prepared him to be a judge. He now is a senior assistant district attorney in the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office and heads the post-conviction unit, which deals with appeals in criminal cases.
He also provides support on criminal law to fellow attorneys working on the trial-court level and is prosecuting one of Wichita’s most infamous crimes — the 2000 murders of four people by brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr — on appeal.
Lowden says he thinks he has the disposition and knowledge it takes to be a judge and can “bring a perspective to the bench that no one else has.” Attorneys who rated Lowden on the survey gave him positive marks in all areas; 36 of 39 agreed he is fair and 37 agreed he communicates clearly.
He has argued more than 150 cases in Kansas appellate courts and also has experience and an interest in juvenile court, he says.
“Attorneys and judges know that I’m very straightforward. I don’t pull any punches,” Lowden said. “I like interacting with people, so the district court position is a pretty good fit for me.”
Paugh says he is the only candidate with experience appearing in all six of the departments in Sedgwick County District Court. Currently a partner of Pate and Paugh law firm in Wichita, he now focuses on criminal defense, family law matters and estate planning.
Paugh has been in private practice for three and a half years. He previously worked as a contractual adviser for IMA Financial Group. He also gained experience in the business sector before pursuing law school at age 39.
Paugh describes himself as “kind of a laid-back guy.” Twelve of the 15 attorneys who rated him on the survey agreed that he is fair and 14 said he is respectful.
“I think that most people that have worked with me think that I’m a fair person. And that if I was elected judge that I’d be fair and impartial,” he said.
“I feel I have the legal and life experiences to represent the people of Sedgwick County,” Paugh added.
“The people that know me know I’ll do a good job.”