FAYETTEVILLE — Juvenile court in Washington and Madison counties needs to be dragged into the 21st century, a challenger said Sunday while the incumbent judge countered that he has no way of knowing what happens in her court because he hasn’t been there.
Washington County Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman, the incumbent juvenile court judge, and Robert Depper III, the lawyer who is opposing her in the race for the Division 3 bench, were part of a candidate forum put on Sunday by the Washington County League of Women Voters and the Fayetteville Public Library.
Here’s a glance at the candidates for Circuit Judge in the 4th Judicial District, Division 3, which hears juvenile cases involving children in foster care, abused and neglected children, adoptions, truancy and delinquency.
• Robert L. Depper III, 41, has owned Depper Legal Services since 2014. He was assistant director of the state Administrative Office of the Court’s Parent Counsel Program, where he focused on general legal services and family law. Depper was a lawyer for the state Human Services Department Office of Policy and Legal Services from 2009 to 2014. He worked at the Bassett Law Firm in 2008 and 2009.
He’s served as an attorney ad litem handling domestic relations and probate issues.
Depper received a law degree in 2008 from the University of Arkansas’ School of Law.
• Stacey Zimmerman, 56, has served as the juvenile court judge for the 4th District since first being elected in 1998.
She oversees 18 juvenile court officers. She also serves as administrative judge for the 4th District.
She was a deputy prosecutor in the district handling juvenile cases from 1993 through 1998.
Zimmerman received a law degree in 1989 from the University of Arkansas’ School of Law.
Source: Staff report
They are running for the seat that hears juvenile cases including delinquency, dependent-neglect and family in need of services. The 4th Judicial District covers Washington and Madison counties.
Judicial candidates are somewhat limited in what they can say while running for office. For instance, candidates can’t say how they would rule on cases that may come before them.
Zimmerman, 56, has been the sole juvenile court judge in the district for the past 21 years. She said she worked hard to get legislative approval last year for a new circuit judge who is expected to hear half of the juvenile cases. That judge will be elected this year and take office Jan. 1.
Depper, 41, has been critical of how Zimmerman runs her court, saying it is inefficient. Zimmerman counters she takes as much time as she needs to hear directly from those involved and who can help her determine what’s in the best interest of the children.
Depper said Sunday that Zimmerman runs a “20th century court.”
“I’ve learned the 21st century process, I’ve learned the best practices, I know the trauma data, I understand how that integrates to the new practices. You have to know how the system works in a very detailed way to be able to pull the lever of services, when services are not going well, to know how to move it to get it just so,” Depper said. “I understand why Judge Zimmerman keeps calling some of the courts I’ve been in rubber stamp courts, because to a 20th century court, it would look like that because they’re more efficient. The things that we need to do are spread out in the law, the law has told us this is how it needs to go. So, in the 21st century model that I know, that I’ve learned, knowing all the stakeholders and how they work, I am uniquely qualified to take us into the next 20 years.”
Zimmerman countered that Depper doesn’t know how her court operates.
“Mr. Depper has not been in court, representing a juvenile in my court, the last 21 years. He has no real concept of what sort of community partnerships we have worked and strived to get for our children,” Zimmerman said. “He says we’re not getting children services because DHS (the Arkansas Department of Human Services) is in court too long. That is not the truth. The DYS (Division of Youth Services) statistics, 2018, say we’re second in the state getting services to our children.”
Zimmerman said juvenile court has been her life’s calling for the last 32 years, as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge and she is always striving to do better by finding more and better services and programs to help children be successful and protect their interests.
“You can look at what I’ve done for the kids and families in our community,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a tough job and not everybody can agree with your decisions. I think I am passionate about juveniles and helping families. I’ve shown that in the programs I’ve created.”
Depper said a new juvenile judge position, that will be filled by the end of the year and take half the juvenile caseload, may add capacity but probably won’t fix the underlying problems. Zimmerman lobbied hard for the position, saying it should help in moving the court’s docket.
“Our services are beginning to crater here in Washington and Madison counties and simply adding capacity without fixing the underlying efficiency problem currently in the court is not going to solve that,” Depper said. “We will wind up paying more money, as we are now, for worse outcomes.”
Zimmerman said she’s worked for the last 21 years to get more services for children and families, build a juvenile detention center and court building and develop diversion programs to keep kids out of court to begin with.
“So, I disagree with Mr. Depper, we have programs, we’re expanding them,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said she’s held 4,630 hearings in the last year.
“During those hearings, every parent that comes into my court has the right to be heard, and they are heard,” Zimmerman said. “Now, if that takes some time and we’re there for a while, these are our children and they need to be heard.”
Elections in Arkansas for judges are nonpartisan. The 2020 election will be March 3. Circuit judges serve six-year terms and are paid $168,096 a year.
The Washington County League of Women Voters’ judicial forums have been recorded and are available for viewing online.
NW News on 01/27/2020