Candidate: Circuit Family Court; Circuit 22, Division 1
My name is Eileen O’Brien. I am a member at Stoll Keenon and Ogden in Lexington, and I’m running to become a family court judge in Fayette County.
I’m running because I believe that our system of justice is the place for people to go to resolve their differences. I’m running for this particular judgeship because I sincerely believe I have the best combination of legal and life experience in the field.
Family courts in Kentucky were started on a pilot basis in the early 1990s, and extended statewide by an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution approved by the voters in 2002.
It is in family court where basic issues of custody, child support, visitation and property division are decided, and those decisions enforced. In the rare, hopeful case, a reconciliation is made.
I’m a graduate of Transylvania University and the UK College of Law. I’ve practiced many kinds of cases over a long career, but family law has been my particular emphasis.
Among the matters I’ve litigated to a successful conclusion was one which smoothed the way to a measure of economic security for custodial parents in Kentucky, as a matter of law.
We are emphasizing experience as an issue in this campaign.
If I’m elected, the parties and lawyers to come before me will be the beneficiaries of the education and associations I’ve made as a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and as chair of the Family Law Section of the Kentucky Bar Association.
It is always better if the parties in family court work it out rather than fight it out. The judge can help them along if she is experienced in alternative dispute resolution, has acquired the best training as a mediator she could find, has mediated cases for clients, and served herself as a mediator. I would bring all of these experiences to the family-court bench.
The legal profession serves the public better when its members take a vital interest in bar service. I am an elected member of the Kentucky Bar Association’s Board of Governors, have been a member for 18 years of the editorial board of the Kentucky Bench & Bar, and served as a member of the board and President of the Kentucky Bar Foundation, which makes grants to good causes across the Commonwealth.
The vital network of charitable, cultural, and social-service organizations in Lexington is made immeasurably stronger through the contributed hours of its volunteers.
Chrysalis House provides scarce resources to families disrupted by addiction. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning supplies a fundamental life skill to its clients, who missed out on it earlier in life through no fault of their own. The Wilderness Road Girl Scout Council fosters affirmative values for life in young girls all over Central Kentucky.
I am as proud of having served those organizations as I am of any legal achievement, and I have been proud to serve them in any capacity.
Our courts, our profession, indeed the primacy of the rule of law itself, are stressed these days by political and social forces, as they have been since the experiment was first tried in ancient times.
But I’m an optimist. I know that out vibrant, durable system of justice will always survive in our country, our commonwealth, and our community.
It is in that spirit of optimism that I hope to serve as a family-court judge, and that the voters will give me the opportunity.
1. In your career, have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and wished you had handled a case or legal issue differently? Describe the situation and any lessons you learned from the experience.
I can’t say that I’ve had this experience. The careful lawyer screens clients, decides if the objectives they seek are lawful, obtainable. Then follows a careful investigation of the facts and the law. Once a case or controversy is joined, the lawyer’s duty is to advocate for the client’s cause, vigorously and ethically. The duty doesn’t really allow for the lawyer to engage in personal second-guessing.
2. Give an example of a circumstance where you faced an ethical dilemma or problem and explain how you solved it.
I was presented with a client who wished to remove funds from a marital business in a way that might conceal them in the business valuation process. I gave the client the option of not taking that action or having me withdraw as counsel. Ultimately he took my advice.
3. What do you believe are the most important qualities of a judge, and how has your professional background and life experience helped you develop those qualities?
I am going to confine this response to the field of family law, which is the jurisdiction of the judgeship we’re seeking. The most important quality in a judge is experience; experience in finding and applying the law, in being able to meet up with parties from diverse backgrounds, and being able to resolve cases with fairness and justice. Above all, the judge needs to appreciate that she has great power in people’s lives, and, therefore, needs to be humble, be respectful, and be not just a good but a great listener.
4. As a potential or sitting judge, what do you consider to be your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
Experience. My proudest boast is that I have been a Kentucky lawyer for 37 years, and have represented hundreds of clients, particularly in the field of family law. For a candidate for a family court judgeship, there is simply no substitute for the experience of guiding clients through life’s most wrenching and consequential events, and to be able to do it with honor. The accumulation of experience needed by a judge must not end at the close of a workday. Lawyers have a duty to engage in the work of strengthening communities. I have put my shoulder to the wheel for decades in the development of the legal profession, in combating illiteracy, in helping families deal with substance abuse, and to advance the status of women in business and the professions.
Someone once said that the law sounds like English, but really is written in a foreign language. Like many lawyers, I struggle sometimes to make the law comprehensible to clients.
5. What or who are the major influences in your life and why?
My parents who instilled a sense of purpose and loyalty and recognition of the benefits of hard work; and the individuals at Stoll Keenon Ogden who gave me the best example of what true professionalism and service should be for a lawyer. Leslie Morris was the consummate gentleman even in the most hotly disputed litigation; and Robert Houlihan, Sr. gave consistently in service to the community and the bar association.
6. Have you witnessed any particular injustices inside or outside the courtroom and how did you respond to those circumstances? How will you respond to similar circumstances as a judge?
Many of my family-law clients who perform capably as mothers and homemakers are made economically vulnerable when the marriage effectively comes apart. These mothers and homemakers come to the legal system seeking a measure of dignity and economic justice.
Theirs is an injustice that is still too pervasive in society. It has been my job as an advocate to rectify it.
7. Who are your judicial role models and why?
Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They shattered the ultimate glass ceiling in our profession, gave a measure of validation to women lawyers everywhere. Both made legal history, and both diligently cared for aging spouses; Justice O’Connor, in fact, resigned from the Supreme Court in good health to become to a full-time caregiver to her husband, who eventually died from the effects to Alzheimer’s disease.
8. Describe a circumstance where you took a difficult or controversial position and how you handled it.
I represented a young mother who was living with her parents and sleeping in the same room as a small child. She lives in a rural area and suitable employment was hard to find.
The father is among the top one percent of earners, makes a tremendous salary. This young woman needed someone to take on the father to attain some degree of economic security from the father, who had a virtually unlimited budget to spend on legal talent.
The law was unclear in Kentucky. A legal principle needed to be made explicit that the economically more powerful parent could not be allowed to use his or her resources to deprive the more vulnerable parent, and the child, of the chance at a decent life.
There were qualifications and ambiguous facts in the case. I have no doubt that this father loves the child, and the question in the case was not whether he would pay, but how much.
My client and I took the case all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court before we felt it was right. She and I helped to make the law more equitable for those in her situation.
9. How would you describe your general judicial philosophy?
I can’t say that I have one. The question contemplates the role of appellate judges, who consider weighty public-policy questions. This isn’t the role of trial courts, where most of us in the profession live. I plan to take up every case as a family-court judge with diligence, fairness, and, I hope, a measure of wisdom.
Some of the most consequential decisions in our jurisprudence – Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainright, Loving v. Virginia – were rendered as the result of one lawyer pressing a just claim for one client. I guess I can say that my judicial philosophy is to maintain the possibility of that happening.
10. What are some of the most significant challenges facing Kentucky's judicial system and how do you propose to address them?
One of the challenges facing the Kentucky judicial system is chronic underfunding. Some of the non-judicial personnel in our court system live at or near the poverty line. The system is functioning, but it would function better with more financial resources.
The second challenge is societal, an American challenge. Respect for the legal system is being undermined by the temptation to obtain political advantage by demonizing what courts do in sustaining a just and civil society. Courts aren’t perfect in dispensing justice, but without courts, not much justice is possible.
Judges are not equipped to address these problems. They are, in fact, specifically forbidden from engaging in partisan politics and from trying to influence public opinion. This disengagement of judges from the political hurly-burly is what we should be hoping for.