NEWS- Jury of one's peers: Wannabe judges plead their cases

In legal circles, an open judgeship is like going to the major leagues. Many want to play, but few are chosen.

A rare spot on the 16th Circuit Court becomes available after January 31, when Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross retires.

Seven local attorneys have tossed their hats into the ring to take his place: sole practitioner Patricia M. Brady; Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos; Charlottesville General District Court Judge Bob Downer; St. John, Bowling & Lawrence partner Cheryl Higgins; Tremblay and Smith partner R. Lee Livingston, Charlottesville Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell, and Albemarle Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jon Zug.  

The General Assembly chooses Peatross' successor, but legislators usually bow to the choice of local delegates– in this case, Rob Bell and David Toscano. "Their decision is entitled to lots of weight," says Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association president David Pettit.

Bell and Toscano are both attorneys, and their fellow members of the local Bar want to help them decide. "The Bar, of course, does not choose the candidate," says Pettit. "We have a process for evaluating and possibly endorsing a candidate if the Bar can agree."

The seven candidates appeared before a public forum December 14 and had one minute to respond to each of seven questions. Judicial endorsement committee chair Don Morin rapped his knuckles on the desk when their time was up, taking the opportunity to silence a future judge.

The questions ranged from "Why do you want to be a circuit court judge?" to "What role should a judge play when a plea agreement is presented by the prosecution and defense?" That question is an obvious reference to complaints by Camblos and Public Defender Jim Hingeley regarding Peatross's handling of a 2004 plea that netted the judge an appearance before a state judicial review committee.

Toscano sat taking notes on the front row in the Albemarle County Office Building's newly refurbished auditorium. 

"Why aren't they both here?" asked Albemarle resident Tom VonHemert about Bell's absence. Bell did not return a phone call by press time.

"I found the questions too easy," VonHemert added. 

Toscano hasn't made up his mind. "This is the beginning of a long process," he says. The Bar hopes to have a recommendation for the delegates by January 10– if the membership can agree on an endorsement of the most highly qualified candidate or candidates. The public is encouraged to weigh in by December 29 to Morin (email ).

One thing the current crop of candidates agree upon: They all want to give back to the community by sitting on the bench.


Patricia M. Brady

Age: 56

Career path: Joined the Peace Corps and worked as a social worker before going law school in her late 30s.

Focus: Domestic relations

Plea agreements: The judge has an obligation to study them before accepting, rejecting or deferring.

Mediation: Not always best for victims of domestic abuse

Outside the law: Weightlifter, cyclist and can stand on her head for more than a minute.

Jim Camblos

Age: 60

Career path: 15 years as a defense attorney, 15 as the elected commonwealth's attorney.

Judge creds: "I know a lot about how people in the county feel about criminal law."

Plea agreements: The judge should play no role in the language of the plea agreement itself.

Pet peeve about other lawyers: Unpreparedness

Connection to other candidates: Zug's boss and Higgins' former boss.

Fashion statement: Bowtie

Bob Downer

Age:  58

Career path: 25 years in general practice

Judge creds: 5-1/2 years as a sitting judge

Mediation: Often preferable, but notes there's "a catharsis that happens at trial."

Pet peeve about other lawyers: When they act demeaning toward witnesses.

Outside the law: Runs, works in soup kitchen where he meets people who sometimes turn up in his court.

Cheryl Higgins

Age: 45

Career path: Prosecutor for 10 years before going into private practice.

Mediation: Just because it's an option doesn't mean it's preferable.

Pet peeve about other lawyers: When they lie, as happened in one case that she, as a judge, would have retried.

Outside the law: Mother of three, adventuresome multitasker who bungee jumps

R. Lee Livingston

Age: 38

Career path: Mock trials in high school, statewide practice in complex civil litigation

Judge creds: Hearsay expert, widely published

Most dramatic courtroom moment: "I had a lawyer threaten to pop me one."

Outside the law: Best moment of the day is tucking the kids into bed with a prayer and falling into the arms of his wife and "all is well with the world."

Claude Worrell

Age: 43

Career path: Came to the area in 1992 as a prosecutor.

Judge creds: Trying so many cases as a trial lawyer.

Mediation: Wonderful tool but not a panacea, and if the parties aren't into it, a big waste of time.

Outside the law: Loves to cook

Jon Zug

Age: 45

Career path: Prosecutor for most of career

Judge creds: Watched a lot of very good judges.

Pet peeve about other lawyers: Habitual tardiness

Outside the law: Board gamer and history student

Fashion statement: Pierced ear

Patricia Brady

Jim Camblos

Bob Downer

Cheryl Higgins

Lee Livingston

Claude Worrell

Jon Zug