I remember a moment clearly as an eighteen year old youth where I decided the direction of my vocation. I was sitting in the home of a teenaged participant in the drug rehabilitation center where I served as a para-professional counselor. I will call the young man “Tommy” to protect his anonymity. Tommy had completed the initial part of this intensive drug treatment program so he returned home while still attending sessions daily. However, the signs of relapse were apparent and he was very agitated. So, I spent several nights at his parent’s home with him to help him through this rough patch.
Besides the memory of my first taste of venison burgers and the plethora of antiques decorating the home, a poignant moment of clarity came to me: I wanted to serve struggling. A very compassionate and wise woman who had been a missionary prior to becoming a therapist mentored me as I changed my degree to Family Sciences. All the twists and turns since then have stayed true to the core of this epiphany – to serve struggling families and build them up. Family Court Judge is the surprising culmination of that life of service. Surprising because, at first glance, these things do not appear connected.
Aside from the years as a counselor at the drug rehabilitation program, I also worked in various capacities for the Comprehensive Care Center. These roles included: flexible response and in-home counselor for troubled teens and their families in crisis, service coordinator for severely emotional disabled youth, and outpatient counselor. I covered Fayette, Clark and Powell Counties during that time. Finally, I served as a child protection worker and ultimately as a team supervisor addressing neglect, abuse and domestic violence in families. Then came law school.
Even this sharp turn actually kept me on the same road I started at Tommy’s house. I turned forty while in law school and my wife and I had our third daughter. Cindy and I will be celebrating twenty-eight years of marriage this May and we are sending our twenty-two year old off to Kenya this summer leaving our two teenaged daughters at home. Not only did we add to our family during the stresses of law school, but Cindy worked third shift as a nurse. Despite all that, I was one of the last eight teams in a nationally renowned moot court competition and honored as the Outstanding Bankruptcy Law Student for the Sixth Circuit, graduating cum laude. Law school under those circumstances proved challenging, but it strengthened our family and coalesced further my value of marriage and family.
Since graduating in 2006 from the University of Kentucky, College of Law, I joined with Michael W. Troutman, a veteran practitioner of law, in what became Troutman & Napier, PLLC. My practice has been predominantly family law but I have also added practices that complemented family matters such as bankruptcy and small business representation. My wife took her turn and became an advanced practice nurse which is a whole other story where I became the primary care-provider for my girls while she attended school in Tennessee (anther stretching growth experience). And now our girls are teens or older and I am heeding the call to serve families and the community in a new way.
Family Court is a very different sort of court. It deals with all things family except elder law issues. The Family Court judge presides over divorces, legal separations, child custody matters, child support, timeshare, mediation, status offenses with teens, neglect and abuse situations, termination of parental rights, and adoptions. Thankfully adoptions because that is a bright and joyous occasion while so much else in Family Court can be painful. I have practiced in every single one of those areas of law and I can assure everyone that my experience with drug abuse; families in crisis; coordinating services; mediation; neglect, abuse and domestic violence all create a storehouse of wisdom to call upon in serving the families of Fayette County in Family Court. All those diverse experiences inform how I would impact families as judge. Building families and strengthening communities as a Family Court Judge is, indeed, the culmination of that original calling.
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.
Waking up at night thinking about a family or client has been a frequent occurrence, especially in the early years of my practice. There are too many occurrences to touch on, but typically the waking up comes before the trial or hearing happens rather than afterwards. Currently there is a child abuse case I am involved in that is unique even though I have been engaged in one way or another with these sorts of matters for decades. So, I wake up with questions I need to ask on cross or whether I should file a particular motion. Usually, once I write down the thoughts I can get back to sleep though sometimes the sleeplessness stretches into hours.
2. Give an example of a circumstance where you faced an ethical dilemma or problem and explain how you solved it.
I was engaged by one client who was seeking to cut her son out of his father’s life in the midst of a contentious divorce. She made allegations that turned out to be exaggerated. She also engaged in property destruction and dishonest representations. I sat down with her and explained that I simply did not practice that way and that I also believed it would ultimately harm her and her son. I told her that I would be glad to continue to represent her, but only if she would agree to my strategy of de-escalation. And, I gave her the name of at least one other attorney to go to if she was not comfortable with my recommendations. She chose the other attorney and the litigation dragged on at least another year.
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?
There is a marked difference between a Family Court judge and other judges. All judges need to be impartial, knowledgeable in applying the law, and discerning. However, Family Court is one part law, one part quasiparenting, and one part social work. Usually there is no one clear winner or loser; a right or wrong. The standards in the statutes for family law matters are, by nature and necessity, vague and ambiguous. Finally, the Family Court judge is always the trier of fact and decider of law. Therefore, diverse experience is far more a necessity for a Family Court judge. Those experiences are like a storehouse of knowledge for a judge to draw on in discerning what is really going on and the best approach or judgment for that family and the children. Even having raised children, including one to adulthood, creates a store of knowledge for me that simply adds to my perspective as a judge.
4. As a potential or sitting judge, what do you consider to be your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
Not to belabor it, but I have a tremendous aggregate of real life and law experience coupled with a solid intellectual capacity in the law. My greatest weakness is the degree to which I do tend to carry the pain of what I see going on when a child’s wellbeing is at stake or where a family is disintegrating. Besides the tendency to engage in that way, I firmly believe that family is the basic building block of society and the stronger the family is, the stronger society becomes. I suspect there will be times when being quickly decisive will prove challenging.
5. What or who are the major influences in your life and why?
I am a person of faith so prayer, scripture, and engagement in a congregation of other persons of faith. These influence me the most on a day to day basis. My wife is the single most influential and encouraging person who helps me stay focused on what is most important in life. Because of these, people can trust that I will be a rule of law judge because my faith compels me to honor the law of the land. People can know that I will be impartial because I am called to treat everyone with respect and dignity as well as being called to serve others and serve the community. Finally, these influences keep me walking a path of integrity, honesty, and steadiness.
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?
Because of the ambiguity and vagueness of laws pertaining to family matters, especially in the abuse and neglect realm, this area of law is ripe for basic liberty rights to be pushed to the edge. As a lawyer and a child protection worker I have seen that a white, middle class standard tends to be unconsciously the template for minority families and impoverished families in dealing with child safety. This results in unnecessary removals from homes where there actually is no “imminent risk” of serious harm and also prevents children from being returned home once the safety concerns have been satisfied. As a judge I will seek to make decisions that, as much as humanly possible, apply law the way it is written within the context of why the legislature crafted it the way they did.
7. Who are your judicial role models and why?
From a law perspective, I can tell you that I am a big fan of the late Justice Scalia. He sought to be true to the intent of the framers’ in his Constitutional analysis and did so with an incisive mind and wit. He was a rule of law justice in the sense that I define that phrase and he was willing to withstand the pressures of changing societal values. When societal values shift, I agree with Scalia that the state legislatures should be the place to make those adjustments but that some values of America are simply inviolable in the U.S. Constitution.
8. Describe a circumstance where you took a difficult or controversial position and how you handled it.
I represented a man whose child was removed from the home for some issues unrelated to him. However, there was evidence of a single instance of his using an illegal substance during a time when the child was not in his care, custody, or control around that time. The prosecutor sought a finding of neglect against him. The controversy came because there is an operational presumption that drug abuse automatically equals neglect. However, the statute addressing drug abuse requires more than that. I filed the proper motions and set the case up for a solid appeal. Most lawyers will not see the above as being in any way controversial. All I can say is that they probably have not spent much time in the abuse and neglect courts.
9. How would you describe your general judicial philosophy?
Rule of law first, application of real life experience and common sense second. In terms of Family Court, when possible, seek to build and strengthen families and marriages.
10. What are some of the most significant challenges facing Kentucky's judicial system and how do you propose to address them?
Again, I am answering in terms of family law. The family courts were created, in part, to relieve the influx of family cases on the courts in the hope that specialization would make things more efficient and more consistent. However, family courts are quickly being overwhelmed. In some places, it is taking months to get matters to a trial and this leaves families and children in limbo. However, I do not believe the answer is to cut corners. For one, I want to see every family face to face at some point if they are before my court. This will take more time than most courts. Rather, I would seek to advocate for additional divisions of family court and seek to show that the ultimate result is a reduced net cost upon our commonwealth because families are the basic building block of society and stronger families mean a stronger society.