In Kentucky, non-partisan district court judges are elected to four-year terms. These judges are responsible for “juvenile matters, city and county ordinances, misdemeanors, violations, traffic offenses, probate of wills, arraignments, felony probable cause hearings, small claims involving $2,500 or less, civil cases involving $5,000 or less, voluntary and involuntary mental commitments and cases relating to domestic violence and abuse,” according to the Kentucky Court of Justice.
To qualify as a district court judge, candidates have to be U.S. citizens and have both lived in the district and been licensed to practice law for two years.
Jefferson County is in the 30th Judicial District — there are 17 divisions within that district, and every voter in the county gets to cast a vote for every division.
In Jefferson County’s 4th Division, District Court Judge L.J. “Todd” Hollenbach IV is seeking re-election. Hollenbach was elected to the position in 2015; he previously served two terms as Kentucky State Treasurer.
He’s being challenged by Julie Kaelin, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender.
At a judicial forum held last month by the League of Women Voters, both candidates answered randomly-selected questions posed by a moderator. Listen or read their answers below, which have been edited for clarity.
“My name is Julie Kaelin; this is an introduction, so I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m from Louisville, born and raised here, went to undergrad and law school at U of L. Right after law school, I thought what I wanted to do was personal injury. It was not what I wanted to do, and my best friend was working at the public defender’s office and she said, ‘I really like it over here. Why don’t you come over?’ I’ve said this before and I know some of you have already heard this, but being a public defender changed who I am as a person. It opened my eyes to parts of the world that I’d only heard about, and it changed the composition of my being.
I stayed with the public defender’s office for about five years. And then because I thought my parents deserved to retire one day and not pay my student loans for the rest of their lives, I decided to go out on my own. And so I did that — I went into private practice. And at the time that I did that there were no women in Louisville practicing criminal defense without a male partner. So there were a lot of people who thought that I would not be able to do it. There were a lot of times that I had to turn down family court cases because I knew that I would become known as a ‘family court lawyer’ if I didn’t. It was hard for the first couple of years, but I’ve done it and it’s been really, really rewarding.
I still take public defender cases. Social justice is extremely important to me — it always will be. My law firm started a pro bono expungement program when the felony expungement bill passed. I do have the endorsement of Citizens For Better Judges: I think that that’s very important. If you’re not familiar with them, please check out their website. They’re a very diverse group of people who come together and decide if they’re going to endorse someone.”
“My name is Todd Hollenbach; I’m your current district court judge and I’m running to retain my office. I am married to my college sweetheart and the proud father of two boys. I’ve been practicing law for over 30 years now — went to the University of Kentucky and then the University of Louisville, which being able to claim both those shows you that I’m bipartisan as a good judge should be.
I have a vast track record of public service, and after all, any elected office is really about public service. I think it’s good to be able to go back and check on somebody’s record of public service. Mine began probably with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, where I served for five years as a commissioner in a quasi-judicial capacity; really enjoyed that. I was elected state treasurer and served two terms — you’re only allowed to serve two terms. And I loved doing that and I think I did a lot of good. At the end of my second term, a position came open on the district court bench and I threw my hat in the ring one election and that was almost three years ago. And now here I am running to retain that office.
I grew up wanting to be a judge. I grew up around people whose names you might recognize — literally grew up around the courthouse hanging around people like Ellen Ewing and Martin Johnstone, Richard FitzGerald, William McAnulty. A lot of those people were over at my house for dinner quite often. And I just always admired the role that they played and, and wanted to grow up to be one of them. And I’ve finally gotten my dream because I have been for the last two and a half years. I’m asking that you all reelect me.”
Question: What’s being done to lessen the number of juveniles in detention and being shackled while they’re in the courtroom?
“I have not served in juvenile court yet. But I know that that has been an issue lately; my sheriff’s deputies were talking about the other day, because sometimes it’s a security issue when they end up having to shackle them. But there’s a push right now to try to make that something that we do on a less frequent basis. Because you don’t want these kids thinking of themselves as criminals, you don’t want them in shackles. Lord knows just the image stirs up all kinds of horrible, horrible thoughts.
I had a sheriff’s deputy the other day telling me that he got thrown into a wall. Because some of these juveniles are not little juveniles, some of these juveniles are much larger. And so it kind of has to be taken on a case by case basis. But the effort in district court right now is to not shackle them unless there’s a really good compelling reason to do so.”
What about detention — are there too many juveniles that are held in detention?
“There are too many juveniles held in detention, and that’s kind of a tricky situation also. We rotate being on night duty, and I’ll get a call quite often and they’ll say that they have somebody — a juvenile — and they’re holding them and they will tell me what they know about his or her record. And they’ll say, ‘Can we release them?’ And usually, I am inclined to do. The vast majority of times I want to do so. Problem comes up when you don’t have an adult to turn them over to. And you’d be amazed how many times I’ll ask the caseworker ‘Is there somebody that’ll come get them?’ They’ll say ‘No, their dad doesn’t want to come get them, their mom doesn’t want to come get them.’ And so you don’t have any choice at that point, but to detain them.”
“Well, I have practiced in juvenile court, and actually, several years ago, I was named a top lawyer in the area of juvenile criminal defense.
The thing that we should start with is understanding that the juvenile code itself encourages never incarcerating a juvenile. The way that our Kentucky juvenile code is written, we shouldn’t be incarcerating a juvenile unless there are no other alternatives. And I believe that.
Now we do, of course, as Judge Hollenbach said, have some kids who are in positions where there is no one to come get them. One of the things that we’ve done is begin using social workers at the public defender’s office. That’s been very, very beneficial. They’re using those more and more. One thing I would like to see happen is better record-keeping of who has been in court for a child in the past to see if we can communicate with someone — even if it’s not a parent or a listed guardian — someone who might be there for that child. I will tell you that I know many people who work in the juvenile detention center and they are some very dedicated employees. I actually have the endorsement of our local corrections officers. I will tell you that these employees care about these kids and they don’t want to see them in there either. I’ve had employees contact me and say, ‘Can I write a letter for this kid? He shouldn’t be here; it’s going to harm him.’
So we’re not doing enough is the answer. But there are strides being made and we’re getting more and more social workers, not just in public defender’s offices, but also in the jails and youth detention center.”
Question: The Veterans Court and the mental health division, a diversion court, has been receiving some recent publicity. What are they and how are they working?
“They are working very well. Let me start by saying that I think this is one thing that does differentiate my opponent and I: I have represented mentally ill people. I’ve been the only person standing with them in the courtroom. I’ve represented veterans; in fact, right now, I’m representing a veteran that the United States is prosecuting for a misdemeanor assault with a documented history of PTSD. These are issues that are close to me, because they’re close to my people. My clients are my causes. Because of that, you get to really know humans and what they’re facing.
And that is what drives the veterans’ and mental health courts, is understanding that if we can address an underlying issue, we can reduce the instances of people coming through the court system, because they’re not getting assistance where they actually need it.
A lot of times, I tell people, there are so many problems in the criminal justice system that money would fix if we could get people to believe that these causes were worth increased taxes and more funding to the courts. There are so many things that we could fix. More funding to social services would fix a lot of these things. But I do think that Jefferson County has always been a model of being progressive and how we treat people in front of the courts. And the best part about that is when I go out to other counties, and I see how Jefferson County’s progressivism is starting to spread. So it’s very important that we have these courts and that we hold them up as models for the rest of the state.”
“Basically, they’re just specialized courts designed to recognize that we can’t take a cookie cutter approach to everybody that comes through district court, because people aren’t all the same. And many people have special needs and special problems. It’s best to send those people to the courts that have the resources at their disposal, that have dealt with those types of issues before. It’s a wonderful opportunity.
In district court, we are spinning plates all the time — we might have 200 people a day in district criminal court in each one of those courts. And so it really is a question of trying to give the time to everybody that needs the time. But when you have cases where you have veterans who might have post-traumatic stress disorder, or people that are suffering from mental issues, you want to be able to divert them into a court that’s going to be able to take the time, that’s going to know what the landscape looks like, and be able to get them to help that they need. So I think they’re working quite well.”
Question: What makes you more qualified than your opponent?
“The short answer, I guess, is experience. And it’s not just experience in the small sense of things, it’s the big experience that matters. We have 17 district court judges, and we call ourselves a term — we work as a group, as a unit, we hand off ideas, we get together once a month to discuss what kind of issues are facing the court and what we might do to make things work better. And most of the people that are judges come from the same background: they grew up working in the criminal court system in Jefferson District Court. Which is fine — you get to know what the issues are and everything else.
But I think that it’s a much healthier body when you have somebody that has more real world experience. And my experience includes everything from serving as state treasurer, serving on the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, serving on the lottery board, serving as the vice-chair of the state investment commission, working hard as a member of the Kentucky Teacher Retirement Board to protect their pensions.
We’re asked to do so many things these days in district court. And as more and more problems arise — be it drugs or what have you — we’re asked to play a role. Sometimes we’re asked to be social workers, sometimes we’re asked to be strict enforcers of the law, sometimes we’re asked to be dispassionate, compassionate dispensers of justice. All those things have to be wrapped up.
And I think that when you have a lot of experience outside of the criminal justice system, you bring that to bear because we do want a court that reflects the people that it serves. Everybody that it serves doesn’t come out of the district court criminal system. I’ve been there for three years now, I do have the little experience and the big experience. I’m asking you for your vote.”
“I completely agree that experience matters, but courtroom experience matters a lot when you’re in district court. As Judge Hollenbach mentioned, there are hundreds of cases that come through there every day. For 13 years, I’ve been practicing in district court, in circuit court. I’ve handled many trials; I taught trial practice at the law school. I’ve done death penalty litigation. I’ve also represented myself in small claims court, I’ve had to go to MIW court unfortunately, for someone, which is mental inquest court.
Human experience matters. I grew up in Okolona in a family without a single lawyer in it. I didn’t grow up with judges around my house. No one in my family is a lawyer and they sometimes think I’m pretty weird for loving it as much as I do. But there’s a reason that Citizens For Better Judges endorsed me over an incumbent. And what it comes down to is experience — courtroom experience. Being able to know when a case lands in front of you, ‘Here’s what I need to do. Here’s what I need to be focusing on.’
And the only way you can get to that spot is by handling hundreds of cases every year for 13 years. I agree that experience is important, but the many groups that have endorsed me, other attorneys that took the Louisville Bar Association poll and Citizens For Better Judges all agree that courtroom experience is what matters.”
For information about other 2018 judicial races in Jefferson County, click here.