BRATTLEBORO -- What’s an assistant judge?
If Lamont Barnett had a dollar for every time he’s heard that question, "I could retire early," the Rockingham resident says.
Barnett, Patty Duff of Brattleboro and Paul Kane of Westminster have found themselves explaining the job title often this summer as the three Democrats campaign for two available assistant judge nominations in the Aug. 26 primary.
The position includes both judicial and administrative functions. And this year’s contested Democratic race -- with Barnett and Duff running as incumbents and Kane challenging -- is drawing attention to a part-time position that usually stays under the electoral radar.
"It’s something you can get passionate about because of who you’re dealing with and because, if you really look at it, what power you have," Kane said.
On the judicial side, assistant judges can sit as finders of fact in family and civil cases. They hear testimony alongside presiding Superior Court judges and then weigh in on the case.
"We generally sit on a three-judge panel -- two assistant judges and a presiding judge," Barnett said.
"It makes the process less-efficient, there’s no question," he added. "But you end up with a better product. You end up with a product that’s the result of three opinions instead of one."
As county administrators, assistant judges have duties including appointing a clerk and treasurer and developing a county budget.
"Our major concern is to keep that building the way it is, and historical," Duff said. "We don’t want to change it dramatically."
Duff is the most-experienced of the Democratic candidates, seeking her third four-year term as assistant judge. Barnett has served since being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2012, and he and Duff are running as a team.
"We’ve been working together for a couple years," Barnett said. "We work very well together."
Kane has taken some exception, however, to advertisements asking voters to "re-elect" Barnett.
"Yes, he has been there, but he didn’t win the election," Kane said.
In response, Barnett notes that he has been sitting on the bench for two years and says his initial selection for the assistant judge position came via a vote by the county Democratic committee.
"(Kane) has every right to do whatever campaigning he sees fit," Barnett said.
That issue aside, the candidates prefer to talk about their backgrounds, their qualifications and their goals for the assistant judge job:
-- Duff said she takes pride in overseeing the ongoing maintenance of the historic Newfane courthouse and, across Route 30, the former county jail that now houses the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.
"I feel I’ve done a lot for the county courthouse, for the grounds and the sheriff’s department," Duff said, adding that she has worked closely with Sheriff Keith Clark.
On the judiciary side, Duff said she and Barnett are working to establish a supervised-visitation center in Brattleboro to ease the complications of parent-child interactions in which court orders play a role.
"It makes it safe, and it’s better for the children," Duff said. "We are going to do it very soon, and the county just donated some money."
Duff said her experience -- both on and off the bench -- makes her uniquely qualified for the assistant judge job. As a single mother who has worked in a variety of fields including teaching and interacting with special-needs children, Duff said she has "been through it, and I understand it."
"I think the value of (the assistant judges) is that we are there for the people," she said. "We are there to get the facts and see their side."
-- Barnett said he has learned much about the assistant judge job in the past two years.
"Regardless of what you find on websites, you really still don’t have much of an idea (before serving)," he said. "It’s probably a good six months before you really get your feet under you, and probably about a year before you get into the swing of things."
He added that, "I’ve now sat on the bench for 2,000 hours, which is pretty significant."
Barnett said that, due to geographic factors -- the assistant judges are based in Brattleboro, while civil court is in Newfane -- Windham County’s assistant judges sit mostly in family court at the Brattleboro courthouse.
"Because there’s no jury in family court, the assistant judges kind of fill that role," he said.
As for the county administration aspects of the job, "it’s actually budget time right now, where we need to look at, what are the needs?" Barnett said.
He has experience in governmental leadership, having served in the past as Rockingham Selectboard chairman and as a member of the town’s Board of Civil Authority and a justice of the peace. Barnett has been a leader of Windham County Democratic Committee; he also has been involved in Bellows Falls business affairs and is co-owner of The Rock and Hammer jewelry store there.
-- Kane, though he has not served as an assistant judge, is no stranger to the inner workings of criminal, civil and family courts.
"Hitting the ground running would be an awfully good thing," he said.
He was employed as a probation officer and supervisor with Vermont Department of Corrections, and Kane also was a social worker with the state Department for Children and Families.
An assistant judge "has got to be somebody who understands the court system, understands conflict resolution -- and I’m trained in that," Kane said.
Kane said he wants to make family court "more efficient and proficient," and he wonders whether Windham County could benefit from a specialized drug court.
"There’s room for assistant judges to involve themselves in proper guidance with drug initiatives," Kane said. "Being involved in drug courts myself in other counties, I wonder if that’s a possibility here."
Kane also has private-sector experience as the former owner of PK’s Public House in Bellows Falls, and he has been involved in business and development groups there. Kane still runs Together We Can, a philanthropic organization that donates to individuals, agencies and schools and has "given more than three quarters of a million dollars in Windham County," he said.
In addition to the contested Democratic primary, there are two uncontested Liberty Union candidates for Windham County assistant judge -- Alice Landsman and Lynn Russell, both of Brattleboro.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.