Judging The Judges: Webb V. Digenis In Jefferson County Family Court Division 10
In Kentucky, matters involving children, divorce, adoption or domestic violence (among others) go to their own special court: family court, which is a division of circuit court. These judges will hear all matters involving a particular family, which, according to the state court website, “reduces the stress that can arise when individuals are shuttled between courts to resolve a variety of issues.”
Family court judges, like all circuit court judges, serve eight-year terms and are selected in nonpartisan elections. They must be U.S. citizens and have lived in the district for two years. They also have to be licensed to practice law in Kentucky, and have been a licensed attorney for at least 8 years.
There are two family court positions on this year’s Jefferson County ballot: the 4th Division and the 10th Division.
In the 10th Division, Judge Derwin Webb is seeking re-election. Webb was appointed to the bench by Gov. Matt Bevin in Oct. 2017. He’s a former University of Louisville basketball player who was in the news recentlywhen a former client claimed he had botched her divorce. According to the Courier Journal, Webb said it was an extortion attempt.
He’s being challenged by Emily Digenis, who has served as a staff attorney in circuit and family court, as well as a trial commissioner.
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.
Judge Derwin Webb:
"Good afternoon. My name is Derwin Webb, I’m the Family Court judge in Division 10. I've been on the bench for about a year and I absolutely love my job. Since coming to the bench I've had an opportunity to do what I've been doing for the past almost 20 years: to serve this community, be there for the people that I've actually helped represent in the past.
"Prior to coming to the bench, I have served as a public defender, I’ve served as a private attorney and I actually did the same thing at the same time — so, while I had a private practice, I was actually a public defender as well. I've served over in Indiana and Kentucky as a private attorney and as a public defender and I may be the only attorney, or maybe the only person that's practicing, that's actually worked in a public defender's office, worked in private practice, worked in corporate law and also worked in the prosecutor's office.
"I've had a vast experience. I have been doing this for, like I said, almost 20 years now and I’ve represented men, women and children. It’s the greatest job I've ever had. I tell people all the time, if I was independently wealthy, I would do this job for free. It’s such a joy to be able to serve this community as I've done in the past. And I want to continue to do for the next hundred years, if I could."
"My name is Emily Maria Digenis, and I'm running for family court judge in division 10. I wanted to let you know, as [Derwin] had indicated, how serious these issues are. We're talking about child abuse, child neglect, divorce, domestic violence. When you come to family court, with the exception of adoptions, it's not a very happy court. So these are serious issues. We need serious people on the bench to address those issues with competency, compassion, efficiency and objectivity.
"I started off in family court; that's where I started off in my career as a staff attorney. I sat on the bench for a decade with a myriad of what I call the ‘pillars of family court.’ I researched and wrote those opinions that the family court judges used in making their decisions. So I'm well aware of the volume of cases, I understand family law. And then, in addition to that, I was also selected to be a trial commissioner. And a trial commissioner is somebody who does night court duties, so I've done that for seven years. I did that between the hours of 11 p.m. and seven in the morning, issuing thousands of emergency protective orders, and emergency custody orders. So unfortunately, I'm all too familiar with the seriousness of those events.
"I might add that I did those concurrently as a single parent with two children under the age of five. So I don't shy away from hard work, and I understand what it's like to multitask, which I think is important for a judge. I'm very heavily involved in the community. I am a legal advocate for the Center for Women and Families. I sit on the board of CASA, which is Court Appointed Special Advocates. So I've involved myself in areas of the community that I’m most passionate about.
"Also my parents are teachers, and they came from Greece as immigrants. They've taught me a very strong work ethic. I am dependable. I am very hardworking, I'm ethical, and I am accountable. I would serve you. And finally I went through family court as a litigant. I know what it feels like. I will be very firm and understand what it means, because I know the experience personally. I hope to earn your trust and earn your vote for November 6th."
Question: With over 2,000 cases per judge, what ideas do you have to speed up the wait time for families to have their cases resolved?
“I think that's critical. And when I was a staff attorney, we had a ‘tickler system’ where we had cases put in a system where it was 30, 60, 90 days. We tried and endeavored to work on getting case and orders out within 30 days, because it was so critical. We're talking about children, we're talking about families, we're talking about paying mortgage, child support, getting children out of abusive situations. I think efficiency is key, organization, making sure we hold our staff attorneys and ourselves accountable. I think e-filing, using technology in any way, shape or form that we can is important to making the court system work expeditiously.
"I think also setting up systems or processes and I'm all about that — I'm very organized, I have a lot of business background as well. That's important: to make sure that we're doing systems accordingly. Because, again, we're talking about people's lives.
"I always say you can’t have children eat retroactively. So if you're waiting on an opinion, especially if you're a child, or especially as a single parent, you have to understand that that is critical.
"I also think it's a collaborative process in the courtroom system. I always think it's important for judges and, not only their staff, but attorneys to say, ‘Hey, what's going on in that case?’ and make it an open door policy. That affords people the opportunity to say, because we're human, ‘maybe something slipped through the cracks’. But I think it's imperative that we try to get those orders out within 30 days. And we can do that depending on the complexity of the case. But that's what I would endeavor to do.”
“You know, it'd be great to say, ‘I agree totally with what Emily had to say,’ and I do to a certain degree. But I will tell you this, when you are actually on the bench, you have to do the work and listen to all those cases, it's not as easy as someone may think. You can put in an e-filing system, you can say it's going to be this way or that way. But it comes down to one thing: doing the work, getting there early, staying there late, making sure that children and families are the priority.
"For example, I've been on the bench, like I said, for about a year. And over that year’s time, you've had an opportunity to actually develop your core values.
"One, we're always going to make sure that we follow the law. Following the law is the most important thing to do as a judge.
"Second thing is children and families have to come first. We're family court judges, so children, families have to come first.
"Last but not least, respect and equality are non-negotiable within our courtroom. If you do those things, then you’re committed to the work, making sure that you get there early, stay there late, knowing that these items are very important and personal to the people that you're dealing with, that's how you get it done.
"It can be easy to say, ‘I'm going to put it through a tickler system, we're going to do this, we're going to do that.’ But the end of the day, you have to be accountable to the people and make sure that you do things which are best for them. And if it means me coming in at seven o'clock in the morning — which I actually do — or staying until about seven o'clock at night — which I actually do — that's what I have to do. That's what my staff attorney does for me. We're committed to the women and children and families of this community. And we’ll continue to do this as long as you want us to be that way.”
Question: How will you be more efficient and expedient in publishing your opinions and making those decisions?
“I want to be more efficient. I'm thankful to have my staff attorney here today. And one of the things we do, we meet weekly, we meet almost daily, talking about the things that need to go out. So if there's a case that comes in that has had some experience on it, that we need to file, that we need to get an answer to, we take that as a priority. But we also have to understand that every case that comes into the court is important, it's important to that person. So we do everything that we can to get an opinion out, an order out as quickly as possible. We don't like to let things linger.
"Because like Emily said, people's lives are at stake. People's children are at stake. Lives are hanging in the balance of decisions that we make.
"Unfortunately, we're not like all the other judges. Every case that goes through family court, the decision is made by that particular judge. So it's our responsibility to get as much information as possible, whether you work with a social worker or you work with the parents’ attorney, whether you work with the guardian ad litem, you get all the information needed to make the decision possible as quickly as possible.
"It can't be as quick as you may want it to be. Because I know there's a saying ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ But in this particular case, you have to make the right decision. You have to make the right decision for the people that are in front of you. So you do it as quickly as possible. But also knowing that lives are hanging in the balance, that you just can't make a knee-jerk reaction because you got to get it out quick, you have to make the right decision for the right people. And that's what your job is to do.”
“So I think I hit on those points a little bit, but I'll try it again. I agree with my opponent in that you can't just do a knee-jerk reaction. But I think setting up systems in place, to make sure that you are organized and efficient and have a good work ethic, calling on your staff on a weekly basis.
"My judges had me in on a weekly basis to make sure that we had cases pulled and we knew what was going on, so that nothing fell through those systems. Because, yes, justice delayed is justice denied. It's a great saying, but at the same time, we can't wait 90 days. I agonized personally over the fact that my judge took 90 days to determine whether my ex-husband could pick up the children at six o'clock at night.
"So I'm not talking about a knee-jerk reaction, I'm talking about systems in place, being efficient, being organized, getting on the phone with attorneys, having a collaborative process that goes on. You know, it's important to talk to attorneys and find out what's going on with that, having them do a notice of submission, which is important. I think that's really important to make sure that we hold the judges and staff accountable as well, because we're serving at your pleasure, not anybody else's. So I think those are things that I would do.”
Question: What makes you more qualified overall, than your opponent to be a family court judge?
“So, I think it boils down to three things for me, and that is competence, compassion and creed.
"So competence for me is that I've had the years of experience logging thousands of hours, sitting on the bench with the judges. I had the privilege of writing the opinions they utilized wholeheartedly. I also was a trial commissioner, so I understood that background. Issuing those thousands of emergency protective orders, which is all that. I have business background as well, which means that I understand complexities in divorce, when we're talking about dissipation of assets, division of marital estates, any kind of profit loss sheets, all of those are important, the background of that.
"And I think compassion is because I have a unique perspective, not only serving on the one side of the bench, but coming before the bench, again, as somebody who was his own litigant with children and going through that divorce process. So I'm sensitive to the needs of people that come to that courtroom.
"And creed. I think creed is important, because I have a very strong work ethic. As I said, my parents are teachers, they were Greek, they ruled with an iron fist. So you did your job, you did it with integrity, you did it with purpose, and then also you treated everybody with the dignity and the respect they deserved, regardless of who came in front of you.
"I also think discretion is important. I don't know if everybody realizes, but in family court, there is no jury. So it's a bench trial. That means the judge does everything, right? So you need somebody who has the temperament to listen and be compassionate, and be objective and be efficient. So that's why I think I'm the most compatible person for that job.”
“Once again, thank you for allowing me to be here today. My message has kind of changed over the past few years, past few weeks as well. I used to always talk about ‘experience counts,’ but if you have bad experience or no experience, it’s just experience. I have a record of experience for the past 20 years.
"For the past almost 20 years, I represented clients, I have been that kind of person that's been a private attorney, public defender, that's represented people in their worst moments, in their time of need. So I understand the compassion when they need something.
"I also take this job very personally. I'm a former foster parent, I’ve adopted a child, so I understand what it's like to be on that other side. I've been a parents’ attorney in the courtroom, where I'm actually sitting on now. So all the cases that I'm sitting on right now, I've actually been a part of for the past almost 10 years. So this job is very personal to me. It's very important to me, and I cannot express to anyone — or everyone — how much I love this job.
"I've been in this community for several years: I'm a former basketball player for the University of Louisville. After I stopped playing, I went into service and I wanted to serve this community because that's what I've always done. Now being in this position has given me a privilege to do that for the last year. But I tell you this, it’s so important to me that when I'm not on the bench, I'm in a classroom, I'm reading to kids. I’m at a house making sure that kid who didn’t go to school, I'm asking them why they didn't go to school and getting them back into school. I take it personally because this community is important to me. It's important to you. And as long as all these things are important, I have to take this job very seriously. That's why I’m the correct person for the position and that's why I want to keep it.”
For information about other 2018 judicial races in Jefferson County, click here.