HER Cover

A year on the bench

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - CONTENTS - Story by Lind­sey Wells, pho­tog­ra­phy by Mara Kuhn

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

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