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9-12-12


Local circuit court judges
get positive reviews

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

Two circuit court judges and two associate circuit court judges in Platte County will be up for retention at the general election on Nov. 6.

Platte County voters will decide whether Judge Abe Shafer, who was appointed circuit judge nearly 13 years ago, and Owens Lee Hull, Jr., appointed circuit judge 14 years ago, should continue to serve another six-year term in the Sixth Judicial Circuit or be replaced.

Voters will also decide if Judge Thomas C. Fincham and Dennis C. Eckold, who are both associate circuit court judges, should be retained for another four year term.

To make the decision process a bit easier on voters, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees, made up of lawyers and lay people, announced its recommendations on which judges should be retained during a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

The Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees arrive at its recommendations after evaluating results of various surveys conducted by lawyers, peers, and jurors that rate the judges' performance.

Based upon their analysis, the committee recommends that Judge Shafer and Judge Hull be retained in the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court, as well as Associate Circuit Court Judge Fincham and Judge Eckold.

JUDGE ABE SHAFER
On a rating scale of 1 to 5, and 5 being the highest score and representing “completely,” lawyers rated Circuit Court Judge Abe Shafer a score higher than 4 in each category.

The commission said such score is “an indication that the attorneys have substantial respect for the judge's skill and professionalism.”

According to the survey, which is funded by The Missouri Bar, Judge Shafer received an average rating of 4.16 on his ability to base his “decisions on evidence and arguments,” a score of 4.11 for providing “reasons for rulings,” a score of 4.54 for maintaining and demanding “proper order and decorum in the courtroom, a 4.21 for weighing “all evidence fairly and impartially before rending a decision,” and a 4.27 for clearly “written opinions and orders.”

In a recent evaluation, Judge Shafer's peers gave him a perfect score of 5 regarding his competency of law and a high score of 4.67 for his ability to display “fairness and impartiality toward each side of the case.”

His lowest score from his peers resulted from the question “clearly explains all oral decisions.”

Jurors that voluntarily responded to the survey gave Judge Shafer a flawless score. Jurors responded positively when asked whether Judge Shafer “treated people equally regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, economic status, or any other factor.” They also responded “yes” when asked whether he “clearly explained the responsibilities of the jury.”

Besides reviewing the lawyer's survey results, peer survey results, and juror survey results the committee also reviewed several written opinions prepared by Judge Shafer. They found his written opinions to be “well-reasoned and clearly written” as well as contained the essential legal requirements.

Judge Shafer served as a prosecuting attorney and later as an associate circuit court judge in the 6th Judicial Circuit before being appointed by the governor to serve as the circuit judge. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1965 and a Juris Doctrine from the University of Kansas in 1968.

Judge Owens Lee Hull, Jr.
Judge Hull received a rating higher than 4.0 in each category from attorneys that dealt with him in the courtroom. The Sixth Circuit Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee said those results are an “indication that the attorneys have substantial respect for the judge's skill and professionalism.”

According to the survey, attorneys gave Judge Hull an average rating of 4.33 for his ability to display fairness and impartiality toward each side of the case, a score of 4.57 for being prepared for hearings and trials, a score of 4.23 for allowing parties latitude to present their arguments, and an average score of 4.29 for demonstrating “appropriate demeanor on bench.”

Judge Hull's peers provided him with an outstandingly perfect score in each category including “understands rules of procedure and evidence, clearly writes opinions and orders,” and “effectively uses pretrial procedure to narrow and define the issues.”

Jurors that witnessed Judge Hull at work in the courtroom also gave him high marks. According to the juror survey results, Judge Hull appears to be “well-prepared for the case,” clearly articulates the “responsibilities of the jury,” and “maintains control over the courtroom.”

Of the 40 juror survey participants, only one said Judge Hull did not “appear to be free from bias,” but the remaining 39 participants said he was free of bias.

When examining Judge Hull's recent legal opinions on matters pertaining to criminal, civil, as well as juvenile law, the committee found that the “opinions were well-reasoned and clearly written.”

Judge Hull, who is the presiding judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, served as an associate circuit judge from 1978 until 1998 when he was appointed circuit judge. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree and law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Hull served a term in the U.S. Army beginning in 1968.

Judge Thomas C. Fincham
On a scale of 1 to 5, and 5 being the highest rating, attorneys that have dealt with Judge Fincham rated him above a 4.10 on each category. Judge Fincham received an average score of 4.77 on a question pertaining to his competence in the law, a score of 4.75 regarding the questions, “rulings on dispositive motions state reasons and consistently apply the substantive law” and “written opinion and orders are clear.”

He also scored high regarding his overall knowledge of rules of procedure and evidence.

Judge Fincham's peers gave him a perfect score of 5 in each category including his ability to base his “decisions on evidence and arguments,” as well as his ability to demonstrate “appropriate demeanor on bench.”

In addition to the lawyer survey results and the peer survey results, the commission also reviewed three written legal opinions written and submitted by Judge Fincham pertaining to domestic law and driving privilege suspension law. They found his opinions “well reasoned,” as well as contain “all of the necessary legal requirements.”

Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Thomas Fincham as associate circuit court judge in Platte County in 2010 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Daniel M. Czamanske. Judge Fincham was a partner at Fincham and Salmon prior to his appointment and worked as the city prosecutor and city attorney for Dearborn. He was also appointed municipal judge for several cities including Riverside, Ferrelview, Platte Woods, Lawson, Oakview, and Richmond.

After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in economics, Judge Fincham earned a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1981. Post graduation, he worked as an adjunct professor of law at the university.

Judge Dennis Eckold
Judge Eckold received a rating higher than 4.0 in each category from the 51 attorneys that participated in the trial court evaluation. Judge Eckold received an average rating of 4.36 for his ability to “clearly explain all oral decisions,” an average score of 4.16 on the question regarding his efficiency of managing his court docket, and a score of 4.33 for issuing timely opinions.

On the other hand, his peers handed out an average rating of 3.33 for efficiently managing his court docket and an average score of 4.67 for being prepared for hearings and trials.

The two jurors that voluntarily responded to the survey questions gave Judge Eckold a perfect score on each question, including whether he acted in a “dignified manner” in the courtroom, appeared free of bias, and acted patient in the courtroom.

The Sixth Circuit Judicial Performance Committee also acknowledged Judge Eckold for developing a driving while under the influence court in Platte County, which deals with repeat DWI offenders. Currently the special DWI court is handling 27 offenders. Judge Eckold also established a mediation program, which calls upon volunteer attorneys to serve as mediators to resolve small claims that would otherwise go to trial.

Judge Eckold was appointed associate circuit court judge by Gov. Jay Nixon in May 2010. Prior to his appointment to the Sixth Judicial Court he worked in the private practice and served as a commissioner of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.

Eckold earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan and his Juris Doctrine from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Sixth Circuit Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee, who recommended that all four judges be retained, consisted of 12 individuals including Robert H. Shaw, Keith Hicklin, David Sexton, Jerry Hagg, Russell Downing, W. Christian Boggs, Terry Morrison, Mildred Knighton, Bradley P. Grill, Jared Welch, Christopher Hiatt, and Mark Harpst.