The three candidates who are seeking the Daviess County Family Court judgeship have deep backgrounds in family law — two are attorneys in the field, and one is the sitting family judge.
The candidates — incumbent Julie Hawes Gordon, Jennifer Hedricks and Thomas Vallandingham — all have ideas for how family court should operate in the future.
Family court was something Daviess County officials sought for a long time, and the court is extremely busy in terms of case numbers, and it handles some of the most sensitive cases that come before any judge.
Family court judges rule on divorces, hear juvenile abuse and neglect cases, make decisions on child visitation, custody and support, and approve adoptions. If a parent’s rights are to be suspended, it’s the family judge that will have to weigh the case and make the decision.
When Daviess Family Court was established, the new court took work that had previously been handled by the county’s three district judges and the domestic relations commissioner.
That’s one full-time judge, doing the work of several other people.
An issue hanging over the race, however, the Judicial Conduct Commission allegations against Gordon.
Last fall, the JCC issued a complaint against Gordon, alleging misconduct and abuse of power.
A hearing is set for April.
Through her attorney, Gordon has denied the allegations, called them “frivolous” and sought, unsuccessfully, to have the hearing date held earlier than April.
In an interview this week, Gordon, who is currently on voluntary suspension from the allegations, defended her record, while candidate Vallandingham said family court has a trust problem the next judge will have to correct.
Hendricks did not address the issue, but said she had the experience and qualifications to lead family court forward and deal with the difficult issues the court faces day after day.
Candidates are listed alphabetically.
JULIE HAWES GORDON
Gordon was elected the county’s first family court judge in 2016, after the post was created.
“When I first took the bench, we had no offices, bench or desks,” Gordon said earlier this week.
Office space was created at the Holbrook Judicial Center, along with two courtrooms.
“In addition to the heavy (case) backlog and the caseload, for over half of my term, we were working in the midst of construction,” Gordon said.
But work did get done, Gordon said, adding that she wrote the local rules for family court, while working with attorneys and case workers to resolve cases.
“It’s more than just a job to me; it’s a calling,” Gordon said. “I love the collaboration, removing obstacles for families. We are working toward the same goal of bettering the future for our children.”
The court receives 2,000 new cases each year, Gordon said.
For a time, District Judge John McCarty was appointed a second family judge. McCarty left the position last year to focus on district court in Hancock County.
Daviess District Judge David Payne is handling both family court and part of his district caseload.
Meanwhile, Tom Castlen and Joe Castlen, retired circuit judges, are handling family cases while Gordon is on voluntary suspension.
“Just in the first year, before we got any help, we were able to reduce the number of days (to resolve cases) of dependency, neglect and abuse by 40%,” Gordon said.
According to Gordon, the time it took to resolve all family cases was reduced by 15% after she became family judge.
Gordon said, “The longer you’re a judge, the more you realize that it’s not just long hours and heavy docket numbers. It’s also heartbreak, and at times it takes a huge emotional toll on everybody. By the time the families get to our doors, there has been so much loss already.
“On the flipside of that is what makes it so rewarding, to seeing families on adoption day” and “listening to children and letting them know their voices matter,” Gordon said.
The JCC conducted an investigation, and allege Gordon misused her authority by ordering drug tests to be done arbitrarily by untrained drug court staff.
The JCC complaint alleges Gordon “ordered juvenile placements that were inconsistent with Cabinet (for Health and Family Services) recommendations,” and that she attempted to use her authority to help her adult son, Dalton Gordon, get into Boulware Mission’s substance abuse treatment program, and then ordered all Family Court participants from Boulware to be drug-tested when Boulware refused her demands.
Of the complaint, Gordon said, “I look forward to getting it resolved and putting it behind me. As anyone who has dealt with a family member who has struggled with mental health and substance abuse, it’s difficult. No family is immune to the disease. With a family member who is struggling with the (issues), you get and try to do the right thing. You won’t always get it right.”
Gordon said switching to virtual hearings during the pandemic has been beneficial, in that it allowed victims of domestic violence to participate in hearings without having to be in the courtroom with the abuser.
Virtual hearings are also good for parties, because they are essentially not paying an attorney to sit in court and wait for a hearing to be called, Gordon said.
The court needs a second family Judge, Gordon said. A longtime goal of county court officials and area lawmakers has been to secure a second, permanent family judgeship for Daviess County.
A bill sponsored by Rep. DJ Johnson, an Owensboro Republican, passed the House but was changed in the Senate last year, and the House did not concur with the Senate’s changes. Johnson has filed a new bill for the current session.
“I feel we have done a fantastic job with our docket management,” Gordon said. “We have made the best of an untenable situation.”
Hendricks worked as an attorney in the Owensboro firm of Evan Taylor Law Office, and then ran the Owensboro branch of Lile Law Office before going into private practice.
Hendricks, who specializes in family law, said she started with family issues early in her career.
“A requirement is, if you’re a new attorney, you have to be on the juvenile dependency, abuse and neglect list,” Hendricks said. “That’s were I found my niche for family law.”
Attorneys on the list serve as guardians as litem, court-appointed attorneys who represent juveniles.
In family court, “I started seeing people in some of their most vulnerable states, people have lost their children” or people with addictions that led to custody issues, she said.
Hendricks said, as a family attorney, she works to correct a client’s long-term issues, so they can have family stability.
“One of my clients was addicted to meth and she lost her children,” Hendricks said. “… She said, ‘I want my kids back.’ I said, ‘I’m fighting for the future, I’m not fighting for right now. We’re going to get you clean, and then we’re going to ask for your kids back.’ ”
In the end, the client received treatment and regained custody of her children, Hendricks said.
As family Judge, “you have to listen, and you have to have empathy,” Hendricks said. “You need to be able to take the facts, evidence and the law and make a fair and just result for people.”
Hendricks said, “I have played all the positions” by handling divorces, custody cases and adoptions. In terms of number, Hendricks has handled more than 1,800 dependency, abuse and neglect cases, 280 adoptions and 117 hearings for protective orders, she said.
“When you play all the positions, you know where people are coming from and are able to give a fair result,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks said she couldn’t discuss potential changes until she was on the bench.
But Hendricks said she would want to work on making the court more efficient in its time management, and, “I am always for growth and improvement.”
“I have always said we need a second family court judge,” Hendricks said.
Of her experience, Hendricks said, “I have a very strong worth ethic. I work a lot, because I know these things matter to people.
“I think taking that experience in private practice, I’ll be able to apply that to the bench,” Hendricks said. “I’ll bring that same enthusiasm and compassion to the bench.”
Vallandingham became a laywer in 2012, and was exposed to family law by working as a staff attorney for a Family Judge Michael McKown for three years.
Vallandingham has been in private practice since 2015, with the majority of his practice focused on adoptions, child custody, divorces and cases of child abuse, dependency and neglect.
“I became interested in the role of the judiciary while I was staff attorney for Judge McKown,” Vallandingham said. “I saw what a well-run family court can mean to a community, and can step in when other social structures fail.”
The judge must “look at the facts, look at the law and make a reasoned decision,” Vallandingham said. “It always interested me to hear all sides of an argument and all sides of a situation.”
Vallandingham said, “In many ways, you’re dealing with the most important aspect a court can do when you’re intervening in a parent-child relationship…. Sometimes, you’re meeting people at their worst, when some other institutions have failed them.”
When deciding cases, “it has to be done in a forthright, just way,” he said. “But it always has to be done by someone who has listened and cares.”
Family cases that involve juveniles are not open to the public.
“There’s a lot of trust that has to go into that position, because of what is done in confidence,” he said. “It’s high-stakes in the issues we deal with, which puts pressure to make the right decision.”
Vallandingham said he has the right temperament and knowledge of the law, adding that even his spare time works as a baseball umpire “has helped hone my conduct” as an impartial decision-maker.
“I have built a reputation among my colleagues as one of the more knowledgeable people in the field,” he said.
Vallandingham said, “I think everyone would generally agree family court in Daviess County, as it sits today, is kind of a mess. There’s one court doing what two should be doing.
Vallandingham said, from speaking with people, “there seems to be a whole lot of confusion as to what’s going on in Daviess County” with family court. “I would like to restore a little bit of faith that. “I think whoever sits in that seat next has a task of restoring everyone’s faith and confidence. You build that trust by doing it the right way — over and over again.”