In the heated race for Fayette district judge in the Third Division, Judge Maria Ransdell says the main issue is her experience; opponent Kim Wilkie says it is Ransdell's judicial temperament.
Ransdell is banking on her 13 years on the bench to keep her job.
"Experience is a very important issue because it takes a person with skill and understanding to do the difficult job of being a district court judge, and experience has helped me hone those skills," Ransdell said in a recent interview.
But Wilkie says Ransdell's behavior and actions have had a negative effect on many people who have had business in her court — from lawyers to police officers to employees of the court system to defendants.
"I'm running because there's been a total lack of civility in Fayette District Court, Third Division," Wilkie said.
He said Ransdell has told lawyers in open court that they needed therapy or that they needed to go back to law school. She has even made some lawyers cry in her courtroom, he said. Wilkie also said Ransdell takes much too long to get through her dockets.
But, Ransdell said: "In 13 years, I have had no reprimands by the (state) judicial conduct commission, either public or private."
She said "public safety is more important than making criminal defense lawyers happy."
As for her time management, Ransdell said: "My dockets generally last no long er than those of any of the other judges. However, I do believe that in criminal matters it is more important to be thorough than to be fast."
Ransdell, a Louisville native, worked as a public defender in Lexington after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in American studies in 1975 and the UK College of Law in 1979. She later was in private practice.
She was narrowly defeated in a race for a local district judge post in 1994. In 1997, she was appointed to fill an unexpired term as district judge and has been in that job ever since.
Ransdell also presides over the district's drug court, a sentencing alternative that involves drug testing, counseling and court appearances, and she is one of the judges who handles drug court in Fayette Circuit Court.
Active in Partners for Youth, a local coalition that works to improve the lives of economically disadvantaged youths, she was named the organization's board member of the year in 2006.
Wilkie is a native Lexingtonian whose family goes back several generations in the city.
After graduating from Tates Creek High School, he received a basketball scholarship to UK but chose to go to the University of Alabama, where he played forward and guard from 1968 to 1971. He later went to UK, receiving degrees in English and political science.
After graduating from the UK College of Law in 1980, he worked as a public defender for several years before going into private practice, handling a variety of cases, including many involving civil litigation. He is a 1994 inductee of the Tates Creek High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Wilkie has raised $42,769.76 and spent $39,004.49 for his general election bid. Ransdell has raised $34,641.01 and spent $30,006.13.
Each candidate has a long list of supporters that includes some of the best-known names in Fayette County's legal community. Wilkie has been endorsed by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, whose members include Lexington police officers and employees of the Fayette County sheriff's office.
He's also been endorsed by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 83, whose members include officers at the Fayette County Detention Center.
Ransdell has been endorsed by the Bluegrass Central Labor Council, which represents various unions in several Central Kentucky counties.
Lawyer Jim Lowry, who has often appeared with clients before Ransdell when she handles the district court criminal docket, said Wilkie is more qualified than Ransdell.
"Most of us that practice in her court wake up every Tuesday with a knot in our stomachs, knowing that we're going to spend the day there," said Lowry, who rarely makes public statements outside the courtroom.
"The two most important qualities for district judge are a good temperament and the ability to manage your time. I don't think she matches up to Kim Wilkie on those two qualities."
Lawyer Adele Burt Brown said Ransdell made her cry in open court after Brown became frustrated because the judge would not let her talk.
"She just generally shows a lack of respect and professional courtesy for the criminal bar," Brown said.
Brown said she tells clients whose cases land in Ransdell's court that their legal bills will be higher because their cases will take longer than they might otherwise.
Wilkie, she said, "seems to have a very even disposition and a steady temperament, and would be patient and a good listener. In addition, I think he has a good legal mind and a broad range of legal experience."
Lawyer Fred Peters said that Ransdell — in front of his clients appearing in her courtroom — has made references to her rulings that Peters has fought successfully to have overturned by higher courts, and has talked about how she disagrees with the higher courts' decisions.
"I don't think my clients should be punished because higher courts said she erred," he said.
"I support Mr. Wilkie wholeheartedly," Peters said.
But others have more positive things to say about Ransdell.
"The reason I'm supporting Judge Ransdell is she had been a criminal defense attorney, and I believe that gives her a fairer perspective of criminal defendants," lawyer Tom Miller said.
"One thing you always see in her court is consideration of the defendants, making sure that they understand exactly what is going on and they get a full opportunity to explain any defenses that they have."
Miller said Ransdell has always treated him professionally and with respect.
"She is also very involved in community activities. I very much respect her for that," Miller said.
"I think she is a very well-prepared judge. She is a very caring judge," said Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts.
"When lawyers don't come to court when they're supposed to come to court, she gets upset about it," Roberts said. "I don't fault her one bit."
James Keller, a former Kentucky Supreme Court justice and Fayette Circuit Court judge who has known Ransdell for many years, said that Ransdell's being a drug court judge speaks highly of her.
"By being a drug court judge, it shows that she cares about her community," Keller said. "Drug court judges do not get paid any additional money. It's something you do voluntarily. ... It's made a difference in this community, and Maria has been an important part of it."
Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.