Pulaski County voters, for the first time, will be asked to choose the next Little Rock District criminal judge in today's election from a field of four candidates, each offering substantial courtroom experience to the race.
On the ballot today are Melanie Martin of Little Rock, a Pulaski County deputy prosecutor for more than 25 years; Margaret "Peggy" Egan of Little Rock who has been a deputy public defender, with a special interest in juvenile advocacy, for the past 16 years; JaNan Davis of Maumelle, that city's former elected prosecutor of 14 years now with the Rainwater, Holt & Sexton firm; and LaTonya Austin of Sherwood, a former prosecutor and public defender now with her own practice.
The district judge's primary duties are conducting first-appearance arraignments and setting bail for all arrests by Little Rock police, as well as presiding over trials in misdemeanor criminal cases in the city. The judge also reviews and authorizes search and arrest-warrant applications submitted by law enforcement.
The $147,084-a-year judgeship is seen as one of the busiest in the state, with 6,652 cases filed in 2017, including 12,938 felony charges and 57,568 misdemeanors.
Today's special election to choose a new judge is a countywide race because the post has been enhanced to a "state district" judgeship, a position with extended jurisdiction that now includes some cases filed in circuit court involving domestic abuse, child support enforcement and unlawful detainers.
The seat came into play following the retirement of Alice Lightle, the last elected judge, in April 2017 a few months into her second four-year term. Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Hugh Finkelstein to fill the post until a successor, who will take office in January, can be elected to finish the two years left on Lightle's term.
Austin, 43, said her experiences beyond criminal court make her the best candidate for the job now that the judge's duties have expanded.
In nearly 16 years as a lawyer, she's been a prosecutor and defense attorney, plus worked as a deputy city attorney for Little Rock and is now a small-business owner with her own practice, which includes civil and family law.
She's also had the opportunity to serve as a special district court judge.
"In just about every area that will come through district court, I've practiced," she said.
She said her deep ties to the community are also an important asset.
"I'm the only candidate born and raised in Little Rock. I live in Sherwood, but there's a large part of my life still in Little Rock. My business is here, my family and friends are here," Austin said. "That sets me apart because it allows me to have experience and knowledge of the people of Little Rock, the culture of Little Rock. The types of people who often appear in district court, I can understand and relate to them and their lives because I'm from here."
Asked about the $3,000 in state tax liens against her, Austin said she's never shirked her obligations and is on a payment plan with tax authorities to make good. She said the debt, one of the perils of being a small business owner, grew out of a difficult time in her life, a divorce and serious illness, but is no reflection on her abilities as a judge or an attorney.
Davis, 46, said she's the only candidate with first-hand experience as a judge in Little Rock District Court, having regularly served as a special judge for Lightle.
Davis said she's also the only one in the race who has ever been an elected official. Her experience as Maumelle's elected city attorney taught her how to accept and respond to public criticism.
"I think that's really helped develop my temperament," she said. "Being willing to answer to the public is important."
Not everyone who comes to court needs to leave with a conviction, she said. The judge needs to recognize defendants who need a chance to prove who they really are. As a prosecutor, she helped develop programs in Maumelle that would provide those chances by requiring drug treatment and community service, she said.
"I saw a lot of young people, young families, in district court where they needed a second chance. We created some unique diversion opportunities where people could show that what ... they had engaged in was not part of their character," she said. "We'd give them opportunities ... to avoid convictions in particular cases. And we saw that work."
Davis also noted her extensive experience working with police as a certified law enforcement instructor, training them in constitutional law and appropriate search and seizure practices, as well as use of force.
"Those are the issues that are often at the forefront of the cases I would hear as district judge," she said.
Davis acknowledged that her campaign stumbled briefly early in the race when some campaign finance disclosure forms were mishandled. Barred by law from being directly involved in the financial part of her campaign, Davis said she wasn't immediately aware of the problem, which included some late and incomplete filings.
Once she discovered what had happened, Davis said, she immediately restructured her campaign once she found out and that her disclosures are now all complete and accounted for.
A teacher before becoming a lawyer in 2002, Egan, 60, has spent her legal career primarily as a public defender, but has also handled juvenile delinquency and child-neglect cases. For the past two years, she's been assigned to Pulaski County District Court, experience she says uniquely qualifies her for the Little Rock post.
"All that did was give me a good feel for people and their situations, but more importantly ... I know criminal law," she said. "I think I have the most experience when it comes to knowledge of the elements of crimes, the rules of criminal procedure, the rules of evidence."
Her experience working daily with criminal defendants has shown her the impact a judge can have on their lives, particularly in steering people in trouble for the first time away from becoming repeat offenders.
As a judge she can use her sentencing power to get people into mental-health, substance abuse treatment and provide them with opportunities to get a high-school diploma and job training, she said.
As judge, her priority would be in crafting sentences for people that both assist them in correcting their behavior while also benefiting the entire community.
"I think it's important that the sentencing fits the person and the crime," she said. "I believe in consequences. But no one should have to go to jail because they don't have enough money."
There will always be people who will have to go to jail, Egan said. But it's important for the judge to be able to recognize which defendants can be deterred just by being arrested and fined and those people for whom a fine can be needlessly punitive, she said.
"Everybody deserves to be seen and heard, and everybody deserves a chance at a sentence that will help them and us [the community] at the same time. Because that's what criminal law is for, to guide us so we can all live together," she said.
Martin, 51, worked her way up through the ranks of the prosecuting attorney's office, joining as a law clerk in 1991 to become one of three senior supervising deputies under elected prosecutor Larry Jegley. That career includes 10 years in the district courts, prosecuting cases herself and supervising other prosecutors.
With violent crime an ongoing concern in the city, Martin said voters should not underestimate the importance of electing the best-qualified judge. Every felony arrest by Little Rock police comes through that court, so having a judge well-skilled in the width and breadth of violence in the city is paramount, she said.
"You can't just call that a misdemeanor court and leave it at that. One of the greatest responsibilities is being the gateway of those violent-crime cases we are seeing," she said. "My background as a prosecutor, I can really put that to work, knowing the history of the violent crimes in Little Rock."
Her experience also taught her to tell the difference between "knowing who belongs in jail and who doesn't. We don't need people who haven't paid fines in our jails. We don't need people with property crimes," she said.
Martin also noted that her experience as a prosecutor has prepared her for one of the district judge's chief duties -- reviewing felony arrest-warrant applications to make sure police affidavits have sufficient evidence to support an arrest. One of her duties has been reviewing those applications for police before they are submitted to the judge.
It's a serious responsibility, Martin said.
"That's not to merely sign them. That's to go over them with a fine-tooth comb to make sure they possess the necessary elements to support an arrest," she said. "These are people's lives. We have to make absolutely sure we're getting it right."
The public needs a district judge who will make sure law enforcement lives up to those standards, she said.
Metro on 05/22/2018