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Sunday, December 23,2012

Retiring judge recalls career immersed in Athens Co. law

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Rebecca Miller
Photo Caption: Athens County Common Pleas Judge Mike Ward speaks in his office in the Athens County Courthouse on Friday. Judge Ward will retire on Dec. 31 after 20 years on the bench.

Athens County Common Pleas Judge Michael Ward is retiring at the end of this year, ending a full-time legal career of nearly four decades in Athens County.

On Friday, Ward recalled returning to Athens after serving in the U.S. Army, and taking a job as assistant county prosecutor in 1973 under then-county Prosecutor Mike Nolan.

He left that office in 1977 to open a private practice, and to serve as an attorney with a joint city-county legal services agency that was the predecessor to today's Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.

He spent a year as Nelsonville city prosecutor, and a short stint with the Ohio Public Defender's office. From 1981, he was Athens County prosecutor, before winning the judgeship in 1992.

Though the job of prosecutor and defender are very different, Ward said both helped prepare him for the bench.

"I liked it," he said of his brief career as a public defender. "It was interesting work… It gave me the opportunity to see the different perspectives of representing the state of Ohio on the one hand, and a private client on the other hand."

In his two decades as a common pleas judge, Ward said that he's seen significant changes, including the state's allowing jurors to take notes and to submit written questions to trial witnesses.

He said he also has watched with concern as the volume and seriousness of crime in the county seems to have gotten worse.

"The crime certainly has gotten more serious – heroin, the abuse of prescription drugs," he said. "It just seems like that's been really rampant for the last few years… And it seems like the crimes have gotten more violent and serious."

Dealing with drug-addicted offenders, Ward said, has been challenging for judges, as a bad drug habit often overrides any attempt made by the judicial system to give defendants a second chance.

"It's a situation we certainly wish that we could address better than we're able to do," he acknowledged. "We get an awful lot of people who are put on community control (probation), or judicial release (from prison), and they come back on a charge without resolving those things… Just the recidivism aspect of it – when you see the same people again and again. It's something that I wish we had a solution to."

Asked to recall some of his more memorable or challenging trials, Ward didn't identify any particular cases, but mentioned homicide cases in general as standing out.

"These are just emotional type situations," he said.

One of the highest-profile murder cases Ward has heard took place recently – that of a woman from The Plains convicted of murdering her 4-year-old stepdaughter. Ward admitted the case was grueling – "any time you've got a little child like that – that's (difficult)," he said.

He recalled the early 1980s, around 1983-84, as a period when "we just had a rash of homicides," including that of Ohio University student Shawn Myers by a Glouster man who is now serving 27 years to life in prison.

Asked whether the public will remember him more as a tough judge or a lenient one, Ward said, "I really don't know. I hope they see me as a fair judge."

As a judge, he said, he's tried to keep his duty to the public uppermost in his mind.

"When I ran for election – I've always considered that as a job interview," he explained.

Perhaps his "biggest adjustment" upon becoming a judge, he said – but one he enjoyed – was getting up to speed on handling tort cases.

"Most of my background was in criminal law," he explained. "So the civil law cases, I didn't really do that many civil cases before (becoming a judge)."

The learning process has been enjoyable, Ward said, as civil cases often require a judge to make interpretations of law during a hearing. "You can't stop the proceeding to go up to the booth and look at the instant replay," he said.

In writing decisions in civil suits, Ward said, "I like to try to explain the basis for my decision, so that people understand why I decided the way I did."

In retirement, Ward said, he hopes to continue working as an appointed judge on selected cases in other counties, a kind of work he has some experience in. Gov. John Kasich will choose his replacement – a decision on which Ward said he doubts the governor's office will consult him.

"Probably not," he predicted. "I don't expect that they will."

While Ward – nominally a Republican, though the common pleas judgeship is officially non-partisan – wouldn't speak any names of local attorneys he thinks would fit the bill as his successor, he did say there are plenty of qualified people.

"I think the members of our bar are very competent," he said. "I'm very pleased with what I consider the high quality of attorneys in our local bar association."


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Greetings: Fair-honest are words I use when talking about Judges who have served in Athens County. As resident we have the best in Athens Common Pleas Court, not always can say same in rest of Ohio.

Soon enough I'm told, either felony charges may be brought against the Athens County Sheriff or myself by a special prosecutor, wish you could stick around longer but, retirement is such a blessing, live long-healthly and know, you made Athens County a great place to live.

David M Jenkinson