The unexpected death this past week of Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Herbert Kernaghan sent ripples through the area's legal community.
We'll be feeling those ripples for quite a while - especially until after the runoff in the race for superior court judge.
First of all, in spite of some recent, troubling allegations about Kernaghan's private life, no one had a doubt about his commitment to children.
The role of juvenile court judge is perhaps even more critical than that of the superior court judges who appoint them. In addition to the jobs everyone expects them to do - dealing with young people who break the law - juvenile court judges also deal with child custody in cases that can be under the worst of circumstances.
Kernaghan, for all his alleged faults, real or imagined, was undoubtedly a man who cared deeply about the children upon whose future he could have such a profound effect. Thus, his death leaves an opening for a judge who must demonstrate a similar level of commitment.
Second, because we are in the middle of a race for a superior court judgeship, the unfortunate timing of Kernaghan's death raises the stakes for the men who are competing.
Juvenile court judges are selected by the circuit's superior court judges, and the upcoming runoff will determine the direction of the circuit's leadership. Generally, candidate Bill Williams is considered an "insider" in the current pecking order, with Chief Judge Bill Fleming in charge. David Roper, his opponent, is an ally of Judge Duncan Wheale - Fleming's nemisis in robes.
There's little doubt Fleming will see to it that a successor to Kernaghan is appointed while he's still in charge. But there will be one fewer reason for him to rush if Williams is elected, because Fleming could assume Williams would vote his way.
Regardless of how all this turns out, the level of rhetoric in the judge's race, along with Columbia County's growing population and presence in the circuit, could encourage local lawmakers to create a full-time juvenile court judgeship for Columbia County.
If so, that wouldn't happen until long after this election is over, when Fleming would no longer have a direct role in the appointment.
The legislature this next session also will be asked to tweak recent changes made in juvenile court rules that threaten to tie the hands of existing judges.
Juvenile Court Judges Bill Sams and Doug Flanagan sat with me this past week to point out several areas in which their hands increasingly are tied by either interpretation of state law or by bureaucratic wrangling with state agencies. It's not a pretty picture.
Among the changes they want is the ability to lock up chronic truants. "We don't want to put children in jail," Sams says, "but we want the option."
With all the emphasis that has been put on improving school attendance, the judges need the ability to detain those who don't get the message.
Strangely enough, they already have the authority to lock up the parents when the children aren't in school - but not the kids.
Signs of progress
Seeing all the new construction going up in the Evans area is a sign of the county's attractiveness to new business.
But an even surer sign of the viability of our future came at the end of this past week when University Hospital broke ground on a huge addition to their Belair Road campus, and as the Columbia Road Kroger announced a renovation and expansion project.
Getting new stuff is great. But when the existing players get bigger, that's a real vote of confidence.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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