A year on the bench

Features / June 25, 2018

District judge reflects on one year of service

Garland County District Court Division 1 Judge Meredith Switzer was appointed to the bench in December 2016 and began serving her term on Jan. 1 of this year. The judgeship was left vacant after the death of Switzer’s father, former Garland County District Court Division 1 Judge David Switzer.

Switzer’s father had been fighting cancer for four years and was set to step down and retire at the end of his second term in December 2016, a decision that was made after he had been re-elected and was to begin a third term in January 2017. In total, he served 37 years on the bench.

“So, I spoke with the governor about the possibility of being appointed to fill the remainder of his term. I had been desperate for quite some time to move my family back to Hot Springs so that I could be closer to my dad and help my mom take care of my dad, but it had always been a difficulty because he was on the bench and, with me practicing law, we would have had a constant conflict (of interest),” Switzer said.

She was working for the attorney general at the time of her father’s retirement announcement. At around 2 p.m. Dec. 16, 2016, Switzer received a call from Gov. Asa Hutchinson offering her the position on the Division 1 bench. Her father passed away the following morning at 8:30 a.m.

“I called him when I got the call from the governor and I said, ‘Can you swear me in on Jan. 1?’ And sure enough, the very next morning he passed away,” Switzer said.

“So, he knew that I had been appointed and he had been, I think, maybe waiting to see if someone was going to take care of what he had helped to build here and take care of his programs and his legacy,” she added. “He was finally ready, and I think he had been ready for a while, in terms of the fight. I never understood how hard it must have been until I started doing this job. This is not an easy job physically or mentally. I know it looks like I just sit here, but after a full day it is very taxing so for him to have gone through chemo and all those things, it’s really something.

“It’s one of those things, you couldn’t have written it. It was so perfect in so many ways. Though painful and sorrowful, it was so perfect because he knew that my mom was going to be taken care of because we would then be moving to Hot Springs, and then he knew that his staff would be taken care of here. That was one of the things, obviously, he didn’t want the staff to change and the people who have been working here for years and years to have to find something else. He knew that I, cut from the same cloth, that I would continue his legacy and his programs and that kind of thing.”

Switzer said that she knew from a young age that she wanted to get into law and be an “alligator” like her father.

“I knew that my dad was a litigator and when I was 4 years old he ran for judge for the first time and I would tell people that I wanted to be an ‘alligator’ just like my dad,” Switzer said, laughing.

Switzer said after her father passed away, her sister gave her one of the biggest compliments she has ever received.

“She said this about (my dad and I) after he passed away. She said it was as if God took a bolt of fabric off the shelf and cut out two people and put it back and said, ‘I’m done.’ Because we are so much alike, and just naturally I am intrigued by the law, I love the advocacy aspect of it, and it is something of which I can be passionate. Every role that I’ve served in as an attorney I have found a different way to be passionate,” she said.

Being a public servant is what it all boils down to for her, Switzer said, adding, “There is no greater honor in public service to me than serving on the bench. That is one of the really amazing things that I’ve discovered about this job. I knew it would be an honor and I knew it would be humbling and I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t understand that magnitude of how you can help someone down here. There’s a lot to be done to help people at this level.”

In her year of service as a district judge in Garland County, Switzer continued the specialty courts that her father had started, including the DWI court and veterans court.

Her father started the Garland County Veterans Treatment Court and Arkansas’ first DWI court.

“In my opinion, we need those courts, the DWI court and the veterans court. I have taken a little bit of a different spin on them and have invested a lot more time in the actual court, meaning I’m spending a lot more time with each defendant,” Switzer said.

She said her staff sometimes gives her a hard time because of the amount of time she spends talking to each defendant, finding out what’s going on in their lives, what assistance they need, and so forth.

“So, the amount of time that I’m spending has increased significantly but, at the end of the day, I think we’re really doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’ve graduated numerous people from the DWI court this year, which is wonderful,” she added.

In recognition of her work with area justice-involved veterans, Switzer was given an award this year by Phyllis Wilkins of the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, a division of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

“I was so honored to get that award. And that’s not my award, it’s our award, my staff’s award, but I was so honored to receive that because it was confirmation that we are doing good things and we are continuing to do good things,” Switzer said.

She added that while offering her the award, Wilkins mentioned that Switzer is “really operating the VA court in the way it was intended to operate by listening to what the veterans needs are, making sure that they make the connections with the VA liaison, and making sure that we’re putting them in touch with the resources that they actually need.”

Switzer’s father, former Garland County District Court Division I Judge David Switzer.

Switzer said that, oftentimes, veterans will appear before her because they suffer from a mental health illness related to their service. A prime example of this is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Another situation often seen by veterans is homelessness.

“When veterans come back to the states from their service period, oftentimes it is difficult for them to get on their feet. Combine that with being out of normal society and being siloed, financial difficulties, education difficulties, employment opportunities are rare. When you combine all those things, obviously it puts pressure on a veteran and sometimes they lead to a life of crime.

“And that is something that — I’m not going to say it’s easy to fix, but it’s something that we can identify and we’ve got a solution in place. So if we can put those two things together, that’s success. That’s a win,” Switzer said.

She added that another thing she has been working on this year, which is her dream, as was her father’s, is to create a mental health court in Garland County.

“To actually stand up a traditional mental health specialty court is very difficult, in part because you need providers, and although we do have more providers in Garland County than a lot of counties do, we still don’t have enough providers that can service the type of individuals, the type of defendants, that we see,” Switzer said.

With that being said, Switzer said she and her staff are putting in place different protocols and mechanisms to address certain defendants that are presented to them repeatedly.

“We know that their behavior is the result of a mental illness and nothing more. If the mental illness is property treated, hopefully we can avoid the underlying conduct,” she added. “If we can get them their medication, or maybe it’s an insurance issue, or maybe it’s a resources issue. It could be that they’re selling their prescriptions, it could be that they’re taking all of their prescriptions in the first week of the month so that they don’t have them for the rest of the month. If we can get a closer microscope on them to make sure that they’re being adequately treated and medicated, hopefully we can avoid some of the issues that we’ve had,” Switzer said.

When asked what the most rewarding part of her job is, Switzer immediately responded with “helping people.”

“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t go home and think, ‘I may have helped at least one person.’ Now, maybe not — I could be totally lying to myself. But if I can help one person a day, if I can help one person a week, that to me is a great success,” she said.

As for the most challenging part of her job, Switzer simply said it is challenging to see people who don’t want to help themselves.

“It is hard for me to accept when people know what they are supposed to do and just simply don’t do it, out of laziness, or disrespect for the court, or whatever it is. My policy is, and this is a really cheesy, cheesy movie, but in ‘Jerry Maguire,’ Cuba Gooding Jr. says, ‘Help me help you.’ I find myself saying that. Help me help you. I will help anyone who wants help, but if you don’t want to help yourself, I’m out. What can I do? Help me meet you halfway,” she said.

Switzer credits her father as the person who most helped her get where she is today.

“That’s in life and in the law. He took such an active role in my law education, not because he wanted me to make good grades, but because he found it fun. He and I doing it together was fun. I learned so much from just a book standpoint, from a legal book standpoint, but also just a lot about life and how to treat people and that’s really a lot about what practicing law is about, is treating people well, being responsive, being respectful,” she said of her father.

She added that growing up with Judge David Switzer was “a little like growing up with Clark Griswold, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.”

Though she is ineligible to run for her current seat again, Switzer said she would be honored to serve on the bench in some capacity again in the future.

“I don’t know what the future will bring for me. Obviously there’s going to be a period of time where I will not be on the bench and I’ll have to make a decision, but given how fulfilling it has been to serve, I could definitely see myself wanting to serve on the bench again in the future.”

Lindsey Wells

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