Chat with Douglas County District Chief Judge Robert Fairchild

Welcome to our online chat with Douglas County District Chief Judge Robert Fairchild.

The chat took place on Thursday, June 8, at 1:30 PM and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.

Moderator: Welcome to our chat today with Chief Judge Robert Fairchild, who is the administrative judge for the 7th Judicial District, which encompasses Douglas County.

Judge, thanks for coming down here today to respond to our readers’ questions about our court system.

I’m Dave Toplikar, online editor, and I’ll be moderating today’s chat.

I’d also like to note that Earl Richardson, your law clerk, is with us here today.

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: Thanks, Dave. I’m happy to answer questions people may have about the court system and its role in our society. Part of my role as Chief Judge is to be spokesman for our judicial district.

Moderator: Judge, can you tell us a little about what your job entails each day as the chief judge in our district?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: I have two different roles. I have a full docket of cases and I am the administrator of the Seventh Judicial District. In my role as a district judge I hear both civil and criminal cases. Each judge in our district is responsible for approximately 2,000 cases.

As the head of the district I am responsible for the 80+ court employees and the administration of the court operation. To assist me I have a very capable court administrator, Linda Koester-Vogelsang. Each of our six district judges is responsible for the procedures followed in her or his division, but I am responsible for the day to day operation of the court as a whole.

Douglas County District Chief Judge Robert Fairchild responds to readers' questions.

Rhoen, Lawrence KS: Through what process and procedure do Douglas County District Court Judges gain appointment to the bench?

What sort of background checks and tests of knowledge / competence regarding the law are conducted?

How did Paula Martin, for example, come to be appointed? Was it through a nominating process; if so, who was the nominator?

Do the other Judges on the Douglas County Court feel any concern about her (perceived) oddly individualistic decisions?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: A nominating committee composed of three non-lawyers appointed by the Douglas County Commission and three lawyers selected by attorneys registered to practice in the Seventh Judicial District is convened when there is a vacancy. The committee notifies attorneys within the district that applications for the empty position will be received and reviews those applications when they are submitted. The committee interviews the candidates and selects three candidates that are submitted to the governor. The KBI performs a background check on the nominees. The governor interviews the candidates and selects one person to be the district judge.

In order to be appointed a district judge you must be 30 years of age, have a law degree, be admitted to the Kansas Bar; have practiced law for at least 5 years, and be a resident of the judicial district. The background check is performed by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation after the local commission has sent three names to the governor. Some of the factors considered by the nominating commission and the governor are the length of time practicing law, the type of experience the nominee has, her/his reputation in the legal and local communities, outside activities, academic credentials, and contributions to the legal profession.

Judge Martin went through this procedure when she was nominated. She was appointed by Governor Joan Finney.

Judge Martin is very hard working and professional and has the complete respect and support of all of the Judges of this district.

Sandy, Lawrence: Bob- I have two questions

1) What are the biggest challenges facing the 7th Judicial District ?

2) What advice would you give to law students and young lawyers?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: Sandy,

1) Funding and the need for additional resources is always a significant problem. However, two other important issues are: a)How to deal with the increasing number of pro se (self-represented) litigants. Our system does not work well with pro se litigants. b) How to change our courts to keep courts relevant in the face of the increasing use of alternative dispute resolution and interest in “problem solving courts”. I think we always need to look at the way we operate and make sure that we are meeting the needs of the legal system and society in general.

2) If they are interested in becoming judges I suggest that they become as involved as possible in improving the judicial system and gain experience in as many areas as possible. I would also suggest that they work with judges and other lawyers to change the system when and where needed to keep our legal system efficient and relevant. Practical advice is: treat all people with respect and be concise.

Isaac, Lawrence: There have already been several arrests for marijuana possession at the Wakarusa Festival. Since Clinton Lake is county rather than city, how will these cases be tried? They won’t fall under the municipal court, will they?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: Those cases will be heard in Douglas County District Court, not Lawrence Municipal Court since the offenses would be committed in the county outside the city limits of Lawrence. We are going to have a special first appearance docket in which we initially hear only cases that are a result of arrests at the festival. Our hope is that many of those cases will be resolved on that day.

Ryan, Lawrence: Your honor, what is your opinion about the controversy surrounding a legislator in Topeka talking to a judge who is involved directly with the school finance controversy (while I know that the investigation is ongoing)?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: I only know what I have read and heard in the media. It would not be appropriate for me to express and opinion on the issue.

Josef, Lawrence: Judge. Could you talk about how cases are assigned as they come into the system? There appears to be certain courts where certain type of cases are assigned. It would seem to me there are advantages and disadvantages to this specialization. Could you speak to this?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: Sure. In our district cases are assigned randomly by the clerk’s office. Five of our judges handle a docket compose equally of civil suits and criminal cases. Those cases are assigned to one of those judges. Judge Shepherd hears divorce and child in need of care cases. Judge Kittel hears juvenile offender, child support and some other types of cases. Traffic cases are assigned to Judge Six, but are heard by volunteer pro-tem judges. Small Claims cases are heard by pro-tem judge, Jim George.

Specialization of courts is especially important in the family area. We are fortunate that Judge Shepherd and Judge Kittel are very dedicated to the family court issues and are willing to specialize in this area. Our judges have considered setting up separate civil and criminal divisions, but the present judges in our district prefer to hear both civil and criminal cases. The main advantage to specializing in this area lies in the ability to schedule more efficiently. Some people feel that specialization helps attorneys predict possible outcomes. This may be a good thing or a bad thing. We have not felt that these advantages outweighs our desire to keep variety in the divisions.

MS, Lawrence: Why won’t you allow “probable cause” affidavits to be open public records when they are filed. This is done in at least one other Kansas county with no apparent harm to the system. What is your rationale for using your discretion on this matter to keep those records closed?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: Probable cause affidavits are produced early in an investigation. They often contain information that later is proven to be inaccurate. This incorrect information could be embarrassing to a person who is never charged with a crime if made public. A person who is the subject of an affidavit can request access to it and we will give it to them unless there are extenuating circumstances. After the case is over the affidavit is placed in the file and is made available to the public. The affidavit is available to the defendant and his/her attorney if a case is filed.

We believe that the public’s need to know is outweighed by the potential damage to the criminal justice system and the possible harm to innocent persons who may be the subject of such an affidavit. Judges of judicial districts are permitted to weigh all these issues and come to a conclusion as to the policy that is best for their district. Our policy is a result of careful thought and consideration by all the judges in our district.

Jim, Lawrence: There’s a new group in Kansas led by Richard Peckham that is advocating election of all judges instead of the current mix where some are elected and some appointed. Do you favor the status quo or would you prefer all judges be elected or that all judges be appointed? Please explain. Thanks.

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: I prefer that all judges be appointed. I believe that the appointment system is the best method to assure an independent judiciary. Judges must make difficult and controversial decisions which involve the balancing of individual rights and societal rights. As difficult as these decisions are they would be even more difficult if campaign donations and the need to be elected are also considerations. I believe our appointment system contains protections in its procedure that allow the governor to appoint persons who are qualified and fair minded. These protections include the mix of both lawyers and non-lawyers on the nominating commission, the KBI background check, and the ultimate choice by the governor. Hopefully, while appointed judges are insulated from the influence of campaign donations and obligations, they must be respectful of the needs of the public since they must stand for retention election every four years. They do not have to take time from their court duties to campaign for election. The newly instituted evaluation system should provide more information for voters in retention elections.

Kathy, Lawrence: Why is it that the bonds and sentences for crimes vary so drastically? For instance, O.R bonds offered for repeat drug offenders but 1st time arrests order cash surety and misdemeanor sentences can be longer than those charged in district court. Additionally why is a sentencing grid used in district cases and not in municipal cases?

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: The standards to be used in determining the amount and conditions to be placed on pre-conviction appearance bonds are governed by statute and the constitution. You must first remember that each of us is presumed innocent until convicted of a crime. This presumption is there in every decision concerning bond. Other considerations are: the defendant’s contacts with the community (do they live here, how long, family ties); defendant’s criminal record; type and seriousness of the crime; community safety; past record of failures to appear in court; desires of the prosecutor and victim; conditions that can be placed on the bond; capacity of the jail. At one time OR bonds were given to drug offenders because there was often a significant delay in charging the defendant due to delays in the results of drug testing. This procedure often resulted in the defendant having to give two different bonds. The district attorney’s office has changed its procedure and files charges in a more expedient fashion. We now usually require cash or surety bonds. Judges can modify the standard bonds (either up or down) based on the factors I set out above. Crimes against persons usually have higher bonds than property crimes. Each judge must decide the bond on a case by case basis.

Regarding the sentencing grid. The sentencing grid was created by the legislature in 1993. It has been modified since. It only applies to felony offenses prosecuted in district court. Judge must follow the sentencing grid unless certain conditions exist.

Moderator: That will have to be our last question. Judge, thanks for taking the time to come down to the News Center for this chat. And I’d like to thank our readers for their questions.

Chief Judge Robert Fairchild: I apologize for not answering all of the questions, but I must go to the courthouse to hear the 3:00 first appearance docket. If you want to mail the question to me care of Linda Koester-Vogelsang, Court Administrator, please do so and I will attempt to answer the question.

Thanks for your participation and interest in the judicial system.