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MILLERSBURG -- The only one of two candidates to accept an invitation to participate in a "Meet the Candidates" event, Holmes County Municipal Judge Andrew Hyde spoke Thursday, March 16, about himself, his experience and the judicial system in general as he defended his position as the incumbent.
He is challenged by local attorney Sam Steimel, who, according to organizer Martin Mann, was contacted several times about the event, but "respectfully declined."
Hyde was sworn into office on Nov. 11 by former Holmes County Common Pleas Judge Thomas D. White. He was appointed to the position by Gov. John Kasich in the immediate wake of the death of Judge Jane Irving-Baserman. Because Irving was less than halfway through her term, a candidate must win the May primary and the November general election to serve out the remainder of the term, which expires Dec. 31, 2019.
To date, there is no challenger to the winner of the Republican primary election, which will be decided on May 2.
Hyde, 51, opened with a brief history of his life and the circumstances that led him to a 20-year history as a trial lawyer in Holmes and surrounding counties. Since 2000, his focus has been criminal defense work, but, in response to a question about the transition from being a defense lawyer to judge, Hyde focused on the Constitution, which establishes not only the system of justice, but the role of defense attorneys in ensuring all accused are fairly represented.
Although he's represented "the worst of the worst," he said, in doing so he filled a role in that system, testing the evidence, realizing that, in defending anyone, he was defending the rights of everyone, even if doing so, incidentally, made him "very unpopular," especially in high-profile, vile cases.
"If the rules don't apply to them, they don't apply to us," he said, noting, "The system only works if both sides fight hard."
Nevertheless, after 22 years, he said, "I like where I am."
But, as a judge, he's taken an oath to uphold the law -- to be harsh, fair and full of mercy. And, already he said, he has been forced to make legal decisions he hasn't liked, although right.
Despite his appearance -- specifically his long hair and beard -- Hyde said, "I consider myself very conservative, although I look like a liberal."
He said he is probably "a little more harsh" than Irving, adding, "I have a real problem with domestic violence, crimes against kids and sex crimes. And, I'm seeing the toll of drugs on crimes against society. The only reason we have locks on our doors and cars is there are criminals."
He said it's the job of the judge to "separate the vicious from the unfortunate" convicts, meting out punishments that are not appropriate for the crime, but the circumstances.
To that end, he said, he appreciates the various sentencing alternatives made available to the court in cases involving the Amish, thanks in part to a positive relationship with local bishops who are committed to moving those within their community toward a law-abiding life.
He said he also is less likely to accept plea agreements in which charges are reduced for the sole purpose of avoiding a trial.
"I've always said you can measure the ability of a lawyer by how they handle jury trials. A lot of cases were resolved to avoid going to trial," Hyde said of past practices in municipal court, noting, "I'm not taking a domestic violence case, where a woman's face is bloody and cut, and let (the offender) plead to disorderly conduct."
Nevertheless, "Cases are still getting resolved and defendants are taking pleas (absent reductions)," he said.
A concealed carry permit holder, Hyde said he also is "pro-Second Amendment," and believes in the right to carry and use a gun for the protection of self, family and community.
But, he added, "that also makes me tough on people who commit gun crimes. You have to hold them accountable because they ruin it for the law-abiding people."
Hyde said he was humbled by, following a rigorous interview process, he received the appointment, beating not only Steimel, but another local attorney, Cassandra Holtzmann, who has now thrown her support behind Hyde.
In response to Holtzmann's questioning, Hyde said he's already implemented some changes in the court to ensure all standards are being met and properly reported to the state. He said he's moved toward issuing typewritten decisions and entries and has implemented practices to ensure the county gets the most of its share of statutory court costs and fines.
Moving into the future, he said, the court is going to have to better address issues of drug addiction and mental health factors and their role in society and the criminal justice system.
"He's definitely the best man for the job. I have great respect for Andy. Andy is truly the best candidate," she said, pointing to Hyde's experience and knowledge and the fact he received the appointment. "We need to get behind the candidate selected (by Kasich) on merit and skills. "He has far more experience than Sam, although I mean no disrespect to Sam.
"I think it says a lot that he's not here," said Holtzmann, one of many who was disappointed and questioned why Steimel opted out of participating.
Among those was Ann Stotler, who, until recently served as a Democratic member of the Holmes County Board of Elections.
"I'm very disappointed Sam isn't here and I'm very disappointed that he chose to run against you. I think it's in bad taste," she said, expressing concerns about Steimel's ability, because of a long family history in the community and a wife elected to the position of clerk of courts, to be impartial.
She said she also is concerned about how much time he has actually spent practicing in municipal court and what she perceived to be, comparatively, less experience than Hyde.
At the same time, she said, in the wake of Hyde's appointment to the bench, "I felt bad because you've been such a terrific defender of everything. I feel for the poor, downtrodden who can't have you as a lawyer."
Because it is a primary race, to cast a vote for either judicial candidate, a voter must request a Republican ballot. And, because there are no candidates on the Democratic ticket this election, Hyde encouraged even Democrats to take out a Republican ballot, cast a vote, have a voice and then, come the next primary cycle, "You have a chance to go right back to the Democratic Party."
The deadline to register to vote in the May 2 primary election is April 3. In-person absentee voting begins April 4, at the Holmes County Board of Elections, where office hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday.