Wetzel County Magistrate Candidates Share Views in Question and Answer Format
1. Why do you want to be Magistrate of Wetzel County?
Magistrate Judith Goontz; Unopposed: I want to continue serving the citizens of Wetzel County as their magistrate. The citizens have voted me as their magistrate for the last 40 years. It is my honor and privilege to be Magistrate and I will continue to show the same dedication.
Donnie Harris; Division 2 Candiate: Over the years I worked with several Magistrates which were previously Law Enforcement officers. These Magistrates said one thing in common being a Magistrate was much easier with the knowledge and experience they gain as a Law Enforcement Officer. I listened to these Magistrates and kept it in the back of my mind. Seventeen years ago I had the opportunity to become a Municipal Court Judge. I discovered I could do things as a Municipal Judge I couldn’t do as an officer. I could maybe change people’s ways or at least make situations better. This was another way I could help people. I knew one day, when the time was right, I would run for Magistrate. The time is right now with the vacancy of outgoing Magistrate Tom Shepherd, who was also a former Law Enforcement Officer. I am looking forward to the opportunity to continuing to serve my community in a new capacity as the next magistrate.
Jeremy Shepherd; Division 2 Candidate: I have had the extreme good fortune of being raised in a family for whom community service has always been important. Both sides of my family are comprised of business owners, civic leaders, and public servants. Since moving back home a decade ago, this community has blessed me with the means to support myself financially, close relationships with friends and family, and opportunities to enjoy the recreational activities that I love. I feel very grateful for what I have received, and I have a sincere desire to give back to my community. I have also had an intellectual curiosity and a desire to pursue new challenges my whole life. This elected position would provide a chance for me to do both.
Billie Zimmerman; Division 2 Candidate: Being born and raised in Wetzel County, I care deeply for our county and its citizens. My career as a public servant began in 1998 when I was hired as a dispatcher for Paden City Police Department. Eventually I transferred to the Wetzel County Sheriff’s Office, Wetzel County E-911, and finished at New Martinsville Police Department. Throughout my dispatching career it was always a dream of mine to one day become a magistrate. My desire grew even stronger around five years ago when it was brought to my attention that I came from a family of magistrates. This revelation drove me to fulfill my dream as well as a family tradition. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to assist the citizens of Wetzel County by working within the justice system to reduce the crime rates we are currently facing.
2. What qualifies you to be Magistrate?
Judith Goontz: Following the code of WV, I am over 21 years of age, shall have at least a high school education, have not been convicted of any felonies, or any misdemeanors involving moral turpitude. And I reside in Wetzel County, WV. I have attended the University of VA Law School for classes. I am certified by being tested for previous years and certified by the administrative office of the WV Supreme Court.
Donnie Harris: To be an effective Magistrate, one must be able to work with the Judicial System. This includes Prosecutors, Magistrates and Staff, Defense Attorneys, Victim Advocates, Law Enforcement Officers and others. I have worked with mentioned employees both as an ” Officer and as a Judge”. We have mutual respect that can only be gained by time working together. My combined experience as a Law Enforcement Officer and as Municipal Judge gives me qualities no other candidate has.
Jeremy Shepherd: Judges of the West Virginia Magistrate serve four-year terms and the election to select them is nonpartisan. The criteria to serve in this position includes the following: twenty-one years of age, a high school diploma, and a county resident. I clearly meet all the criteria. My education level well exceeds the minimum requirement, as I have earned two bachelor degrees, as well as a master’s. Judges at this level are not required to be lawyers, nor are they required to have backgrounds in law enforcement, but must complete a course in rudimentary principles of law and procedures. When I am elected to this position, I will immerse myself fully in the coursework that is required, as I have done with all my previous studies. I think most importantly, who I am as a person qualifies me for this role. A magistrate must decide cases fairly and impartially, free of political influence or intimidation. This is precisely why I have sought no endorsements nor have I accepted campaign contributions. Regardless of my views, I will follow the law.
Billie Zimmerman: The state of West Virginia requires minimal qualifications to become magistrate. Each magistrate must be at least 21 years of age, must have a high school diploma or equivalent, must not have been convicted of a felony, nor have misdemeanor charges against them. I successfully meet all of the state’s requirements. Additionally, I attended WVNCC where I majored in Criminal Justice and minored in Paralegal Studies. I hold a Correspondence Degree in Animal Science. I completed training on methamphetamines. I have twenty-plus years of experience working behind the scenes of law enforcement as a dispatcher. Previously, I served as a Municipal Court Clerk for the City of New Martinsville, and attended training for Municipal Court Judge. Being dedicated, honest, ethical, and hardworking further enhances my qualifications to serve as a magistrate in Wetzel County.
3. What do you perceive as the greatest obstacles to justice, if any?
Judith Goontz: No answer.
Donnie Harris: It has been my experience that it is difficult at times to get victims and witnesses to come forth and testify. It is frustrating to them to have multiple hearings, and it can be embarrassing and very emotional. Some have the perception that they will be retaliated against. Retaliation is rare in Wetzel County. Finally, it is getting harder and harder to get good quality people to apply for jobs as Police Officer Prosecutors and Magistrates. We are very fortunate in Wetzel County to have good people in those positions, and I hope that continues. We must keep people in those positions that can be trusted and relied upon.
Jeremy Shepherd: Our biggest obstacle to justice for our community is one that many other small communities are experiencing. It involves our limited resources for those who are substance addicted and the cumbersome process of serving justice when these individuals break the law. We are limited in intervention strategies; we have incarceration and drug court. We need greater access to rehabilitation services and case management. I would like to see more focus on mentorship as opposed to parole. This is why I have founded a non-profit organization that would provide direction in trade and vocational school programs, mentorship with business plans and proposals, and career guidance. In addition to lack of resources, there is the amount of time it takes to go through the process. Justice is not swift. By the time drug cases are investigated and make it to court, families have been destroyed as domestic violence and emotional abuse increases. Many families fall victim to theft. Additionally, as evidenced most recently, it is not just petty theft. Major break-ins of businesses and residences are occurring. Again, this is why I feel my non-profit could be beneficial. It could serve as an intervention for at-risk youth before they make choices that take them down the path that leads to the wrong side of the law. In addition, there are adults who deserve a second chance. I believe that the non-profit could work in conjunction with drug court. When exiting rehabilitation or incarceration, incentives and goals to stay clean through career and job opportunities can provide hope.
Billie Zimmerman: Every situation has the potential to be difficult. Laws, procedures, and circumstances change from time to time. I believe information, or the lack of information, is one of the greatest obstacles of justice. Therefore, having as much detailed, current, and complete information is the only way to effectively handle cases fairly before the court. I feel another challenging obstacle is society’s view of what is right, and what is wrong. Media coverage and open forums on social media have tried cases before the justice system has had the opportunity to do so. The changing of traditional values and the acceptance of types of behavior which were once considered taboo have also created more challenges in the judicial system.
4. What criteria would you use for deciding whether to impose or affirm sentences outside of standard ranges?
Judith Goontz: Flight risk, if defendant has had numerous serious charges and had been incarcerated many times.
Donnie Harris: Unfortunately, this isn’t a quick or simple answer. There are many things that come into play during any sentencing. I will explain this in both the upper and lower ranges. I will use the crime of simple Destruction of Property. In this example, the defendant broke into a home by kicking open the door. The person was intoxicated and believed he was at his home and was locked out. Because of how the WV Statue is written, we can’t charge burglary. Since we don’t have the intent to commit a crime, the charge is Destruction of Property. He put the person who was in the home in great fear. I would sentence the defendant outside the norms above standard range. An example of below the standard range would be a young adult with no prior criminal record who knocked the window out of a vehicle. The youth recently signed up to go into the military, but could not go to the military until the charge was adjudicated. The Prosecutor and Defense came up with an agreement that the defendant make restitution and the charge be dismissed without prejudice. This means if the defendant does not go to the military or make restitution the charge can be reinstated. This is an example of below normal standard. Justice is not always about sending people to jail. Every case is different and should be judged on its own merit. This is where a Magistrate’s experience is important.
Jeremy Shepherd: West Virginia state law determines what the sentence actually is for each crime. Every case will determine what sentence is to be imposed within the state standards. Those parameters mandated by the state cannot be superseded or diminished. However, sentences can be suspended and probation can be imposed. Additionally, community sentencing and sanctioning may take place within the guidelines for each code. For example, a 30-day jail sentence could be served on weekends in order for a person to keep his/her job.
Billie Zimmerman: State and Federal statutes set sentencing guidelines to be followed. These guidelines do provide a range for most cases that a magistrate may impose. However, I feel each case is unique. The type of offense and how serious of an offense holds the key factors affecting the severity of the sentence imposed.
5. What factors are considered in granting and setting bail amounts for defendants? What do you believe is the primary consideration?
Judith Goontz: No answer.
Donnie Harris: There are several factors; Seriousness of the offense, prior charges (was he out on bail for another charge), flight risk, Prosecutor’s recommendation and likelihood that the defendant will follow the terms of bail. Bail is not punishment, it is a set of pre trial or preliminary restrictions that are imposed to ensure the defendant complies with the Judicial process. In Capitol Offenses the Magistrate cannot set bail. The primary consideration is the seriousness of the offense.
Jeremy Shepherd: Setting of bond in a criminal case is to simply secure the appearance of the defendant in future hearings. There are several factors that should be considered in setting bond, such as the crime accused itself, the defendant’s past criminal record, and his/her propensity to commit another criminal act. The most important consideration in setting bond is to protect any potential victims and the public at large from any future criminal acts.
Billie Zimmerman: Setting a bail/bond amount simply means the appearance of a defendant at future court proceedings are insured. Depending on the nature of the offense, bail/bond in the adequate form of cash or surety is necessary to guarantee the appearance of offenders in court so that justice may be served. There may, at times, be a need for conditions such as no contact with the victim, or the use of an electronic monitoring device could be required as an addition to the bail/bond that is imposed.
6. To what extent have you practiced in the area of criminal law?
Judith Goontz: I issue felony warrants, set bonds on felonies, and preside over felony preliminary hearings. I preside over any misdemeanor charges in Wetzel County. I initiate juvenile delinquent cases and hold detention hearings and preside over preliminary hearings. I initiate and have detention hearings for child neglect and child abuse cases. I initiate mental hygiene and have detention hearings. I preside over jury trials and bench trials. I rule on all motions presented to the court.
Donnie Harris: Criminal Law is what I have done for the last 30 years by testifying in Municipal,Magistrate, Circuit and Federal Court. I have applied for and executed search and arrest warrants, served subpoena’s and summons, served writs of execution, wrongful occupation and more. As Municipal Judge I follow Magistrate Court Rules. I have presided over trials, performed arraignments, sentenced offenders, subpoenaed witnesses, issued subpoena duces tecums, heard motions and much more.
Jeremy Shepherd: While I may lack experience in criminal law, I do not believe that is a liability nor a hindrance. I see it as an opportunity to carry out a job with fresh eyes, free from judgments, cynicism, or stereotypes that could befall someone whose only professional experience is executing and interpreting law.
Billie Zimmerman: Being previously employed with the New Martinsville Police Department and New Martinsville Municipal Court as a municipal court clerk provided knowledge in the area of criminal law. As municipal clerk I became aware of setting bail/bond by the Municipal Judge and accepted bail/bond monies set by the same. I also gained knowledge on imposing warrants, warrant service, jail commitments, jail releases, court dockets, domestic violence petitions, operating the states DVP system for verification of orders, completed arrest files, filed arrest files, and entered citations. I entered data into the UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting) System aka IBR (Incident Based Reporting) System used to report crimes required to meet statutory requirements so the government can provide crime statistics. I also was trained and tested as required on the WEAPONS System (West Virginia Automated Police Networking System). This system allowed assessment to DMV files and completion of NCIC/CIB reports for officers. The Magistrates office holds its own ORI that is required for inquiries of the WEAPONS system, so having a working knowledge of this system would be an asset to the county as well as the Magistrates office.
7. Do you feel the War on Drugs has been effective or ineffective?
Judith Goontz: No answer.
Donnie Harris: When I started my career 30 years ago, the main drug I saw on the street was marijuana. The only overdoses I saw were by someone taking prescription pills to end their life. As time went on, I saw the abuse of prescription pills and bath salts. I don’t see any of these drugs often anymore. Now Heroin took over and deaths started happening and continue to happen. We had meth labs for a while, now most meth is brought into Wetzel County from out the state. There have been some battles won, but they are many more to win.
Jeremy Shepherd: Our nation has been engaged in the “war on drugs” since the 1970’s. I am aware of four prevailing mindsets when classifying drug use and its prohibition: 1) the drug itself is the problem drug use is a crime enforce laws; 2) the supply of drugs is the threat focus on drug suppliers; 3) the disease concept neither the user, nor the drug suppliers are responsible focus on education and treatment; 4) varying degrees of decriminalization of illegal drugs allow small quantities for personal use. The U.S. government’s war on drugs is primarily fixated on number two, a supply war. In theory, the war on drugs is supposed to systematically dismantle drug smuggling rings that are spreading the drugs in the U.S. The research finds this approach has been ineffective in deterring both drug usage and distribution. Therefore, the downstream consequences such as crimes against other individuals and property are prevalent as are the emotional strain and abuse with family, friends and society as a whole.
That said, as magistrate, I will be charged with deciding on issues and cases related to drug offenses; therefore, I must do nothing which compromises, or even gives the appearance of compromising, the impartial adjudication of disputes arising under the laws enacted by the WV legislature. I will take my oath of office seriously and will continue to fully comply with it, irrespective of personal views. As magistrate, I will apply the law regardless of my personal view of the law.
Billie Zimmerman: I believe our law enforcement is identifying the problem areas and effectively addressing them to the best of their abilities. The court systems are prosecuting offenders and imposing sentences. However, the key to reducing repeat offenders has yet to be found. We still have a large amount of work to do on this war on drugs epidemic. The supply and demand in the drug market is going to be hard to break. Unfortunately, there will always be addicts and there will always be dishonorable people looking to profit off of them. I am developing a plan which is still in its early stages. I have been working towards a Neighborhood Watch in an area neighborhood. I will be moving forward with this and reaching out to those in the neighborhood once the Stay-At-Home order is lifted. The plan will then be presented to the New Martinsville City Council and New Martinsville Police Department with the hope we can all work together on the project. This is somewhat of a lengthy process. A Neighborhood Watch isn’t going to completely stop all drug activity. However, I do believe that once the watch is in place it will serve as a deterrent to illegal activity.
8. As a prospective judge, what do you consider your greatest strengths?
Judith Goontz: I listen to all the evidence and make my judgement and know that I am satisfied with it.
Donnie Harris: I believe my experience and knowledge from being a Law Enforcement Officer and as a Municipal Judge are my greatest strengths. I have used the judicial system my entire career.
Jeremy Shepherd: I feel my greatest strengths are my quick, analytical mind that can process and synthesize information quickly and my ability to make decisions about that information from a place of logic. However, I can also work from a place of intuition and discernment. Even though a magistrate may deliver a consequence that is firm, he can still demonstrate understanding and compassion when appropriate.
Billie Zimmerman: I believe the communication and interpersonal skills I have obtained through my dispatching career are some of my greatest strengths. I have learned how to take control of emergency and non-emergency situations. I have great leadership skills as the founder of The Stocking of Cheer Program. I have served as an event planner for many area non-profits and organizations, and as a board member for the Wetzel County Autumn Fest. My proven dedication, strong work ethic, leadership, and communications skills show only a few of my strengths in fulfilling a prospective judge position.
9. Are there any specific types of cases in which you know now you find it necessary to disqualify yourself?
Judith Goontz: My relatives and other times when need be.
Donnie Harris: There will always be cases a Magistrate must rescue themselves from. An example for me would be someone I arrested previously for molesting a child and that person is now a defendant in a new case. I would have to rescue myself in that case, due to the previous arrest.
Jeremy Shepherd: The types of cases from which I will need to disqualify myself would be the same cases that any judge would need to do so. These will include cases in which I have personal knowledge of the facts and those that involve friends and family members to which I have conflict.
Billie Zimmerman: Recusing oneself as a judge presiding over a case can happen for any number of reasons. In such a small community, a magistrate may find it necessary to be recused over a variety of circumstances. Ethically speaking, this is a decision every judge will have to make during their tenure at the bench at some point in time.
10. How will you deal with difficult people, including peers, lawyers, clients, or litigants?
Judith Goontz: Professionally, I am in charge and demand an orderly courtroom.
Donnie Harris: In my line of work dealing with difficult people is common. I have attended training in Crisis Negotiation, Dealing with the Mentally Ill and Supervising Difficult Employees. I am a person that is easy to get along with; it is just my personality to want to get along with people. With experience, I have learned to get along with different types of personalities. I have a good working relationship with people and the people I work with to include county government, .other agencies, city government and employees both as an ” Officer and as a Judge”. If elected I will continue these good relationships as your next Magistrate.
Jeremy Shepherd: At the initial appearance for a criminal charge, I would inform the defendant that they have the right to be represented by an attorney at every step of the proceeding. I will explain that if an offense could garner a jail sentence and they can’t afford an attorney, he/she may be eligible to have an attorney appointed. I will reiterate that if a decision is made for self-representation, they cannot later claim that they were denied the right to an attorney. I will make sure they fully understand the charge or charges of offense and the penalties that may result from those charges. Every step of the process will be clearly communicated including choices for pleas, bail if applicable, the individual’s rights, and the procedural steps of justice.
Most civil cases at the magistrate level involve pro se litigants whether it is the petitioner or the respondent. I would let the litigants know that I control the court as they state claims and respond to the complaints. Although both parties may say things that are irrelevant, inadmissible, or hearsay, I would allow them to have their say. I believe Magistrate Court is the “People’s Court,” and I want people to feel as if they have been heard.
Billie Zimmerman: Aristotle said, “The law is reason, free from passion.” I will not allow personal or public opinion, unnecessary displays of emotion, or any other distraction to interfere with the legal process. The public must have confidence and trust that their magistrate is impartial, unbiased, fair, and free from political influences or intimidation. I will faithfully uphold these duties of office and apply the laws that govern our state by West Virginia code and the Supreme Court.
11. How would/do you deal with a pro se party appearing in your court?
Judith Goontz: During a bench trial, explain to the parties of what is going to happen and how the hearing will unfold. Consider all facts in order to arrive at an educated ruling.
Donnie Harris: Most of the people appearing in Municipal Court appear pro se (representing themselves). I basically explain to them the court procedures that will happen next. I also explain to them their right to subpoena witnesses, rights to discovery and a right to cross examine witnesses. I do make them aware they could be at a disadvantage by not knowing rules of the court and criminal law.
Jeremy Shepherd: To be honest, although my work experience has given me the opportunity to work with folks from all walks of life, I don’t find people to be that difficult. Most of us just want to be heard and validated, even if we don’t agree. This is something that we seem to have forgotten in these extremely polarizing times. Some of my closest friends share entirely different views on many topics yet we consider each other’s differing opinions and learn from each other. I was always taught that to earn respect, you must give it.
Billie Zimmerman: A person has every right to be their own representation. There is nothing in the law that says it is a requirement for an attorney to be employed in every case. As a magistrate, I have a highly responsible role in all cases to ensure defendants understand their right to counsel as outlined in the 6th Amendment. I also must be certain they understand they cannot claim lack of legal counsel or representation if convicted and they so choose a pro se defense.
12. What is your general judicial philosophy?
Judith Goontz: No answer.
Donnie Harris: I would classify myself as having a conservative philosophy. I believe a Magistrate should interpret the law as it is and not create their own law as it pertains to the Criminal Statute in question .
Jeremy Shepherd: I believe in maintaining an open mind until all issues are fully presented. I will demonstrate fairness and impartiality to all sides as they approach the court. Everyone is deserving of dignity and respect. I will have no personal agenda and uphold the state mandates and guidelines, delivering consequences as necessary and compassion when appropriate.
Billie Zimmerman: My philosophy would be to hold a strict constructionism. However, relying on the evidence submitted, and following guidelines strictly depending on the severity of each case allowing for exceptions as seen fit based on case findings. I have worked behind the scene for many years and hold good relationships with many agencies. I will communicate with all local officials and be available when needed. Each case has guidelines that will be followed. Every case is unique and will warrant different rulings based on the facts presented and not from biased decisions. The book will be strictly followed when needed based on severity, and when need be I will seek change.
13. Please describe your first-hand experiences, if any, dealing with people who are different from you socially, economically, or politically.
Judith Goontz: Absolutely, none whatsoever.
Donnie Harris: In both my jobs I routinely encounter people that are from different backgrounds. I was raised to treat people with the same respect no matter their background, to treat people how you would want one of your family members treated. As a Police Detective you must learn to get along with people from all walks of life or you will never solve any cases. You don’t have to like or agree with their background, but you must respect it.
Jeremy Shepherd: I have been exposed to a diverse group of people during most of my life. As a young adult, I interacted with teachers and fellow students from all over the world on college campuses. I have lived in urban areas with many ethnicities. My jobs with NFL athletes, and technology professionals have exposed me to those who share different socioeconomic backgrounds, views, and outlooks. Although I have lived and worked in urban areas, my heart and soul are still rooted in my small-town upbringing. I was raised in the Brooklyn area of New Martinsville and when I returned home, I served that area on city council. I have much more in common with people in the local area than I have differences, and I enjoy my friendships and interactions with local folks. When working in physical rehabilitation in our local area, my patients ranged from coal miners with job related injuries to attorneys recovering from knee replacement. I had the opportunity to work with older patients and with children. I provided services to those who could self-pay and those who received Medicaid. Working with this very diverse population was invaluable to my understanding of the ways in which we are all alike and the awareness that most of us really do want the same things. I read a variety of print news and op-ed pieces, so that I am well rounded. I believe all these are examples of someone who is sensible and balanced. My approach to life will assist me in making common sense, logical, and fair decisions as a magistrate. Billie Zimmerman: Having 22 years of experience in communications, as an event coordinator, as the founder of The Stocking of Cheer Program, as a board member for the Wetzel County Autumn Fest, and as a member of several other organizations within Wetzel County, I have dealt with persons of all walks of life. Why should anyone who is different from me socially, economically, or politically be treated to a lesser standard than people who align with me in all aspects of life? After all, The Bible states in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, we are all created equal. As a public servant, regardless of the circumstance, you treat each individual with respect. In my duties as a dispatcher there were many times I received a call and the person on the other end was screaming, cursing, crying, and refusing to listen. You learn to quickly take control of the situation. You place your personal feelings aside and take care of the citizens’ needs. After all, is that not what a public servant is supposed to do? I have dedicated my life in service to Wetzel County and I would like to continue being an experienced public servant to our county. I am not a politician. I am just a common, concerned citizen who wants to restore trust and confidence back to Wetzel County.
14. Why should voters support you rather than your opponent?
Judith Goontz: Experience, Experience, Experience and educated for the job I am elected to perform. The voters of Wetzel County has voted me into office for the past 40 years. They respect me and know that I am fair and honest. I judge each case on its own merits. I attend yearly conference trainings from the administrative office of the WV Supreme Court of Appeals. The citizens of Wetzel County know from past years that it is my honor and privilege to be Magistrate.
Donnie Harris: I am a dedicated public servant. I have been serving my community for thirty years as a Law Enforcement Officer and seventeen years a Municipal Judge. I love helping and protecting people. During my career I have never waivered from being a public servant. I have a long, prestigious career where I have earned the respect of the people involved in the Judicial System. I have the knowledge and experience to do the job well. I am looking forward to the opportunity to serve the community I grew up in, raised my family in and worked in as your next Magistrate.
Jeremy Shepherd: My opponents are worthy candidates. I would never want to criticize them to stake my claim. However, I will contend that I am the best candidate. I would simply ask that you look at my level of education, my work ethic and experience, my community involvement, and the strength of my character when you make your final decision.
Billie Zimmerman: I believe I am qualified and the candidate who is best fit to be unbiased in the job. I believe I have the least amount of potential conflicts and would be able to make the most impartial judgments. One cannot, as a magistrate, carry their attitudes towards people into a proceeding as if their fate has already been adjudicated before even walking into the courtroom. I have the experience that some others don’t. I have the flexibility to be available whenever needed. I have worked in the legal profession many years and will do my best to serve everyone with equality and fairness. I have worked behind the scenes and I know first-hand how the justice system works. Someone in law enforcement may have the experience in that profession, however, the role of the magistrate is somewhat different and is more involved with the people than law enforcement. Officers make arrests based on what they find at the time. Magistrates have to attentively listen with an open mind to all involved in the case. I feel I am qualified based on my multi-tasking abilities and my vast studying of the law throughout my 22-year career. I want to continue serving Wetzel County, and this opening within the magistrates office has given me a place to serve if elected.