Candidate forums are running a little differently this election cycle.
The League of Women Voters of Athens County hosted a virtual forum for the two candidates for the Athens County Court of Common Pleas Juvenile and Probate Division judge on last week.
Both candidates, candidates Kenneth E. Ryan and Zachary L. Saunders, tuned in to respond to questions from community members, who submitted queries before the event.
Tonya Conrath was the moderator for the evening, and she began the evening by acknowledging the passing of Juvenile and Probate Judge Robert Stewart.
Judge Stewart, 70, was in his 18th year as Athens County Probate Juvenile Judge. He died on Saturday, Sept. 12.
“He would’ve handed the baton to one of the candidates tonight,” Conrath said during the forum. “He was held in the highest esteem by the legal community and the Athens community.”
Both the Ohio Supreme Court and Gov. Mike DeWine have the power to appoint a judge to the seat.
Both candidates had ties to Stewart and voiced words of grief and remembrance at the forum.
During his career, Ryan has represented more than 100 children in child abuse and neglect cases, and he took on more than 600 cases on the mental health docket. The attorney previously served as a teacher in the Trimble School District. He has 28 years of education and legal experience.
Saunders, of The Plains, noted during the forum that a majority of his cases have been centered on instances of child abuse. Saunders has served as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, and he began working in the Prosecutor’s office in 2015.
Both candidates had 90 seconds to respond to community-submitted questions. Here are snippets from their overall responses to multiple questions raised during the forum.
What experience, professional or personal, best prepares you for this position?
Ryan: “28 years. 28 years. I don’t know where to start. 12 years at Trimble schools. 11,000 hours of classroom experience… you did everything you could do. We had a school system that had virtually nothing. My mother had mental health issues; she died at 58 after complications with medications. My brother had schizophrenia. He took his own life when he was 40 years old. I have done 600 cases in the mental health docket; I’ve spent — I can’t tell you how many hours I spent poring through medical charts at Appalachian Behavioral Health. When it comes to the elderly, I’ve been the guardian for 17 individuals. I’ve worked in nursing homes with my clients. The list goes on.”
Saunders: “I got my start in law school with the judicial branch. I externed for a federal court judge. I’m one that’s in the courtroom everyday: with my experience, which I was a young attorney representing indigent clients in Licking and Fairfield County, and I was heavily involved in the juvenile court aspect of those two counties. I was a guardian ad litem. My focus has been child abuse cases: that’s one of the most disturbing aspects of juvenile and probate court. I have a tremendous amount of experience in reviewing those cases. I really think we need to provide avenues and structures to succeed in Athens County.”
In which part of this position do you have more experience — the probate court side or the juvenile court side? How will you ramp up to the duties of the other side where you are less experienced?
Saunders: “It is juvenile court, and someone who practices in Athens County Juvenile Court … 75 percent of the court’s docket is juvenile court work. I have a substantial amount of experience not only in private practice, dealing with custody, but also abuse, neglect, dependency and delinquency cases. At one time, I was the prosecutor in juvenile court. In the aspect of probate court, where I have experience, I have handled estate planning issues, I’ve helped complex guardianships, I’ve had complex legislation. Ultimately, my job is to become more educated. I’ve been studying, and I’m going to be the best person out there.”
Ryan: “It’s hard to say in my case, because I’ve done both juvenile and probate ubiquitously since I began my practice. In juvenile court, I’ve practiced extensively on all three dockets. When it comes to the probate side, I have experience on virtually every docket … except for marriages. But the mental health docket, the guardianship docket, special needs trust docket, the state administration docket, even name changes, and the adoptions docket. I have just hundreds of thousands of hours when you combine all that together that I’ve done. I will continue to pursue and build on every level of experience that I have been able to bring.”
As juvenile court judge, you are required to make decisions that impact children and their families’ lives forever. As judge, you have to decide what is in the best interest of a child. What prepares you to make these difficult decisions?
Ryan: “I would say all the time that I worked with parents and children primarily in my years of teaching school. You really have to know and understand a child … you can bring the best out of somebody if you can see in them what their best is. In addition to that, all of the cases of all of the children I’ve represented… when I represent a child, I’m meeting the child where they are. I’ve had a tremendous amount of experience in that arena. The example of Bob Stewart: I was in this presence more than any legal mind in Athens County. His influence on me is immeasurable.”
Saunders: “When I was in private practice when I was representing criminal indigent individuals, I was representing those families… trying to get their kids back. The whole point was reunification. But I was also representing children in those cases. What I’m most proud of is the guardian ad litem. I took that training to be a guardian ad litem, and where I was focusing on what is truly in the best interest of the child, that is the eyes and ears of the court. And why I’m geared to make these difficult decisions is when I, myself, and Elizabeth Pepper, who handle all the child abuse cases in Athens County … I’ve seen those tragic cases... However, there is that glimmer of hope.”
What are the biggest changes you think we need to make to our justice system where children are concerned?
Saunders: “When we’re dealing with the juvenile justice system, we are focusing on rehabilitating the offender. What we’re looking to is finding some avenue is making sure that offender rehabilitates and that I don’t see that person back in my courtroom if elected. The big focus is the mental health treatment of our youth. I’m either going to have employed a mental health counselor, a mental health probation officer or a mental health liaison in my courtroom. But also, they need to be held accountable sometimes… but that doesn’t mean punishment. If a victim is up to it, there’s a victim mediation program I’d like to institute. Community service is going to be a big part of my court.”
Ryan: “I think when you look with respect to the side of juvenile delinquency, it’s important to meet them where they are... you need to know how to reach them. I’ve practiced in 18 counties across the state of Ohio, and one of the programs I would like to emulate is what I’ve seen up in Fairfield County. It’s a broad spectrum of a juvenile program that meets kids, identifies them in different categories, what are going to be their strengths, and how statistically we know to best reach those kids.”
In your courtroom, would you allow hearsay if it’s spoken by an authority figure?
Ryan: “I will follow the rules of evidence in regards to hearsay. My job is to follow the rules.”
Saunders: “I will follow the law. If it comes up, I will follow the law. If it’s something that needs to be researched, it will be researched.”
Will you make your decisions based on proven facts, rather than written documents signed by an Athens County Children Services worker? Will you make your own inquiries if something presented to you doesn’t make sense?
Saunders: “No, I will not just rely on an affidavit from Athens Children Services. I will take all evidence into consideration. As a judge, I think it’s important you do make those inquiries.”
Ryan: “I think it’s essential for any judge to weigh the evidence and weigh the facts. There’s so much that goes into how those facts are weighed in cases. It’s really important that the judge be as impartial as possibly can be, and that the inquiry is done responsibly.”
Do you believe that the parent or foster parent with more money and a bigger house should get custody of a child?
bearing in any case… the ability to provide for a child is essential. But I have five brothers, my mom had mental issues, my dad provided for his family… we didn’t have much at all. Even with my mom’s mental illness, she raised some pretty good guys.”
Saunders: “Absolutely not is the short answer. I got my start representing parents that didn’t have money... I saw so many parents with their backs up against the wall try in whatever way they could to get their child back.”
How does a parent’s mental illness/disability factor into your judgment into child custody cases?
Saunders: “At some point that’s a difficult situation; I think you have to look at what’s the best interest of the child. But what we really need to focus on — there are mental illnesses out there where many individuals, if properly treated with medication, are perfectly normal adults who can strive in society. For me, if someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, and for me to rip them away from their child, I’m not only hurting a parent, I’m potentially hurting a child’s life.”
Ryan: “A person with mental health issues can be a good and responsible parent. If you’re in a situation where you’re in juvenile court and you’re in a custody cases, sadly we’re talking about parents who don’t have that support from one another… that has to be a consideration. Kids do best in families, but we need to protect them where they need it.”
What do you believe are the root causes of juvenile crimes, and what are some ways the court could reduce the number of juvenile crimes?
Ryan: “Any child who is not fulfilling his or her potential… they can’t see their own potential. I saw it as a teacher. When they know what they can do, then they can succeed. One of the programs that I was talking about earlier: it’s a broader spectrum of trying to identify children, trying to get them assessed early, by using what we have to get children to see their future.”
Saunders: “In Athens County, we live in a very impoverished area: I’ve seen a lack of hope, a lack of structure, a lack of avenues to succeed. We need to make it a point to rehabilitate the offender. I think it’s very important we look at what those avenues are. I don’t want to see individuals to become adult offenders. I would love to work with local organizations to create afterschool programs for our youth.”
How will you manage your court in order to decrease the trauma families experience in legal proceedings?
Saunders: “We have two magistrates right now who do a great job. I want litigants to see me before the first hearing. I want to show this issue of disagreement between them on visitation or custody doesn’t need to affect the child, and if it does affect the child, there will be consequences.”
Ryan: “I think primarily when we talk about this issue — the trauma that families go through when they go through juvenile court — I think it’s most evident in our abuse and neglect cases, fortunately, children are rarely ever in court. If you’re a parent who is failing to do your job, I won’t have any problem making you uncomfortable. I’m going to hold you accountable.”
What novel issues could you see facing around truancy during this time of online learning? What factors should the courts take into consideration when making truancy decisions.
Ryan: “Yeah, there are issues. I appreciate and take very seriously the pandemic we are in. We have got to find a way to get children in school. I’m not saying we risk their safety… this is tough. It leads to a lot of difficulties. In terms of what the court can do… it’s not in a position to chase after truancy cases. I’d take each one as it comes.”
Saunders: “I’m a parent of a public school child who is doing online learning. It’s absolutely a struggle. We have kids who may not be computer literate… We are facing something that no one ever could have prepared for. I’ve been meeting with public school superintendents. It’s a very difficult in terms of absenteeism and truancy when you have those individuals during the day who do not have the childcare aspect. That’s something a juvenile judge would have to consider.”
Students often feel forced into signing diversion agreements for charges they believe are unfounded without an attorney present to advise them of their rights. Would you continue this practice?
Saunders: “I understand the concern of whether someone has the right to counsel or whether diversion is an appropriate avenue. If someone doesn’t want to go into a diversion aspect, they have their right to their day in court. I want every individual to feel like they got a fair shot in my courtroom.”
Ryan: “We have to be mindful of what Ohio law dictates. We have to consider what the costs of those issues would be. Athens County is not equipped with unlimited resources. I think there are ways we can address some of these matters. We can reduce these issues from coming to the court. We can have ways to identify children when they are having issues so we can avoid these issues from the start.”
As juvenile court judge, if you believed a guardian ad litem would be useful in a situation, but the parties can afford the court costs with having one, how would you proceed?
Ryan: “I agree with the notion that the guardian ad litems… are essential tools and essential components. They assist the court, being the eyes and ears on the ground… I guess the best thing I can say is I struggle with the difficulty. There’s costs involved. I would be happy to find ways to improve or increase the number of guardian ad litems… they are invaluable.”
Saunders: “You have to think outside the box. You very likely could have a mediator work between the two parties. The other avenue: I’m going to be active in grant funding.”
As teens have been involved in nearly 30 traffic-related fatalities in Athens County since 1995, would you commit to continuing a teen driving safety program? Do you see improvements in that regard?
Saunders: “Yes, I absolutely will be continuing this type of program. There has been a higher fatality rate in Athens County dealing with juvenile traffic offenders. It’s important to educate our youth about those offenses. To build upon that program, I will work to see what trends are going on in the nation.”
Ryan: “It’s clearly a good program. Some of these other interventions are key to reducing further injury, further accidents. We would follow the data and follow the research.”
How do you feel about prosecuting police officers for excessive force? What type of measures would be taken against those officers who are found guilty of this kind of offense?
Ryan: “That’s not really an issue that’s going to present itself in juvenile and probate court. As for how officers are being prosecuted, that’s a job for the third floor in the Athens County courthouse.”
Saunders: “That’s something as judge I simply would not hear. I can give some experience as a prosecutor… I can tell you we are a very progressive office. A crime is a crime.”
How will you handle conflicts of interest on the bench?
Saunders: “Back in the day, it used to be very difficult for a judge to get off a case if there was a conflict of interest. Now if you have a conflict, all you have to do is tell the Supreme Court and they will appoint a judge to the case.”
Ryan: “When a conflict of interest is identified, you make use of the resources provided under the Ohio Supreme Court.”
What reforms do you support to increase access to justice for all kids, and will you fight for those reforms?
Ryan: “I think the kinds of reforms for access to justice is to make sure the court is well-informed where access has been denied or limited, or where there is not break-down in the availability in justice for everyone in our community. I think education in the courthouse, diversity in the courthouse is essential in having a judiciary that understands where our community is coming from.”
Saunders: “The juvenile court is here to provide that avenue to rehabilitation. I’m going to be active in the courtroom to make sure not only are they understanding and being held accountable, but also providing and looking at what those truitions are so that they’re not back in my courtroom. When it comes to access to justice, I was instrumental in getting a portal upstairs for the public to do legal research for free. I just want to make sure juvenile court litigants know this information is accessible.”
Question 18: Is there an age limit beyond which a child offender is automatically sent to adult court? Can this be overruled?
Saunders: “So, when an offender under the age of 18 commits a crime... they don’t automatically have a case presented to a grand jury and therefore are indicted. What happens is a mind-over process. You hear evidence. You have investigations that are done. It’s on a case-by-case basis. That means I’m going to look at every case with a fine-toothed comb. It’s a life changing decision.”
Ryan: “You have to take each case on a case-by-case basis. The mind-over process is one I think is very thorough, intricate, essential. There are so many factors that would be considered.”
Question 19: What do you see as the most serious problems in the present juvenile justice system?
Ryan: “The thing we need to do better is identify children where they are, identify the issues they are suffering under. Again, they’re all different. And we need to have a system in place that provides comprehensive assessments. If a child doesn’t know who he or she can do or be, what chance does he or she have to achieve it?”
Saunders: “I want to let you know that I practiced before Judge Stewart, and Judge Stewart ran a fantastic court. You know, when it comes to it, I have several things that are near and dear to my heart, and those are children. My whole point is to rehabilitate the offender. That means not create this juvenile to prison pipeline when they become adults. We really need to focus on the root of the cause… the lack of structure involved in these children’s lives, but also the mental health.”
The forum, in its entirety, can be viewed on the League of Women Voters of Athens County Facebook page.
The Athens County chapter of the League of Women Voters will host an additional digital candidates forum on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., with this forum featuring candidates for an Athens County commissioner seat. Candidates to speak will be Charlie Adkins and Bill Hayes. Visit the League’s Facebook page for more information.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Ballot requests for mail-in voting must be submitted by Oct. 31. Applications can be found on the Board of Elections website.