Two candidates vying for resident circuit judge in 2020 election

Two Monticello attorneys are on the November 3 ballot for the Sixth Judicial Circuit’s Residing Piatt County judge. Longtime Piatt County State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades won the Republican primary back in March and is being challenged by candidate Suzanne Wells, who is on the ballot as the Lincoln Heritage Party candidate.

Dana Rhoades

Rhoades has been elected to three terms as the counties state’s attorney since 2008.

She and husband Kerry live in Monticello and have a son and a daughter.

OFFICE SOUGHT: Piatt County Resident Circuit Judge

WHY ARE YOU RUNNING FOR OFFICE? I am running for Piatt County Circuit Judge because serving as the Circuit Judge is a rare and unique opportunity to serve the People of Piatt County. Prior to being elected as the State’s Attorney, I have committed my legal career to that of public service. Prior to being elected as the State’s Attorney, I was in private legal practice for 12 years in Piatt County. During that time, I was involved with community service including serving on the Piatt County Mental Health Board, Monticello Rotary Club President, and the Kirby Medical Center Board of Directors. The opportunity to serve as the Piatt County Circuit Judge does not come along very often and I would be incredibly honored to to serve Piatt County in this special way.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST ISSUE IN THIS ELECTION? The biggest issue is which judicial candidate is best suited and qualified to serve the People of Piatt County. I have 24 years of courtroom legal experience in areas of the law that would appear on the Piatt County Court docket. Prior to being elected as the State’s Attorney, I appeared in court on a variety of civil law matters including divorce, child custody and visitation, landlord/tenant, contract disputes, order of protection cases. I have even provided legal advice to form a new Drainage District. I also did criminal defense work, with jury trials as a defense lawyer. I have 12 years experience as a prosecutor working on some of the most serious of cases, including child sexual abuse, aggravated domestic violence, homicide, aggravated robbery, and child neglect/abuse cases. I am the only candidate with jury trial experience. I am also the only candidate with experience both as a defense lawyer and as a prosecutor.

IF ELECTED, OVERALL WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO ACCOMPLISH DURING YOUR TERM? My goal is to develop a specialty drug court to serve Piatt County. I have been in the unique position to see first hand what factors contribute to criminal behavior. In a typical criminal case, there is often an unresolved underlying factor that has contributed to the criminal behavior, whether it be untreated substance abuse or mental health. The criminal justice system is not always well equipped to address these underlying factors.
Piatt County has a great probation services department and outstanding treatment service providers already collaborating within our community to serve our citizens. A specialty drug court would provide additional support for appropriate offenders who are placed on community based sentences. Specialty courts focus on untreated or underlying concerns that contribute to criminal behavior and provide added accountability on the offender. It is only through these specialty courts that offenders can be referred for particularized treatments that address their individual needs.

WHY ARE YOU THE BEST CANDIDATE FOR THE OFFICE? I have the widest range of experience which makes me most qualified. I am the only candidate who has jury trial experience. I am the only candidate with experience both as a defense lawyer and as a prosecutor. From 1996 to 2008, I was in private legal practice in Piatt County appearing in court on a regular basis on family law cases, criminal cases, breach of contract disputes, landlord/tenant cases, orders of protection. I handled jury trials representing clients in the role as a defense attorney. Since 2008, I have appeared in court representing the People as the State’s Attorney. My role as the State’s Attorney is to seek justice while balancing the competing interests of all interested parties, including the victim, the accused, the public, and the judicial system. This experience easily translates to the judicial role, where the Circuit Judge must deliver justice while protecting the competing interests and rights of the parties involved with a case.

IS THERE A CERTAIN AREA/AREAS IN PIATT COUNTY ENFORCEMENT THAT WOULD BE EMPHASIZED DURING YOUR TERM(S)? The first priority will be the Continuity of Government plan which is due on January 1, 2021. This is a detailed plan on how the court system will continue to function in the event of an emergency. This will require coordination between the requirements of the State agency Piatt County department heads to plan for all of the functions of the courts and departments/agencies to continue to respond to community needs.
As the State’s Attorney, I implemented several projects that focused on addressing Domestic Violence issues including the Regional Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence Team and the first Piatt County State’s Attorney Victim Advocate. I am grateful for the community support I have received on these projects. As Circuit Judge, I will continue to explore projects designed to address domestic violence concerns. I will also implement a specialty drug court program.

DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? We have been so fortunate in Piatt County to have so many competent, intelligent, and caring judges. All of these judges have applied the law in a fair and impartial manner without regard to what their political party affiliation may happen to be. We have had judges presiding in Piatt County from both major political parties. I have appeared before most of these judges and have always observed their courtrooms to be free from political interference.
If I am elected as your circuit judge, I too will apply the law in a fair and impartial manner, free from political interference.
My record as the state’s attorney clearly demonstrates that I have the courage to do this.

Suzanne Wells

Suzanne Wells is an attorney and partner with the firm Wells & Grabarczyk, P.C. She is the wife of the late Ray Wells and has one son and two daughters.

This is her first attempt at political office.

HAVE YOU RUN FOR OR HELD POLITICAL OFFICE BEFORE? No

WHY ARE YOU RUNNING FOR OFFICE? I am running for Piatt County Circuit Judge because I believe I can have a greater positive impact on my community as a Judge then I can as an attorney by applying my 32 years of legal experience to the kinds of cases that our Circuit Judge hears every day.

Because we have only one Circuit Judge presiding in Piatt County, our Circuit Judge hears every kind of case filed in Piatt County: civil litigation (drainage disputes, property line disputes, injury cases, contract matters), family law cases (divorce, paternity, adoptions, guardianships of minors), criminal and probate matters. I have actual and extensive experience in handling all of these types of cases.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL IS THE BIGGEST ISSUE OR ISSUES IN THIS ELECTION? Piatt County voters are making an incredibly important decision in this election. Because of the tenants of the Illinois Judicial Code, Judges don’t run on a platform or party affiliation. Judges serve the public by applying the law to each case brought before them. The candidate’s work ethic, character, experience, and legal ability are the issues in this election.
I have been favorably rated by attorneys polled by the Illinois State Bar Association. 90% of attorneys responding to a bar poll about my qualifications have found me to be qualified for the office of Circuit Judge, in a bar poll administered by the Illinois State Bar Association. In addition, I received ratings of 93.15% for integrity, 92.96% for impartiality, and 92.65% for legal ability.

DO YOU HAVE A CERTAIN AREA/AREAS IN PIATT COUNTY ENFORCEMENT THAT WOULD BE EMPHASIZED DURING YOUR TERM(S)? The courtroom is the people’s court room and every person who enters the courtroom should leave feeling respected, heard, and treated fairly- even if they are unhappy with the result. If elected, it will be my job to ensure that.

IF ELECTED, OVERALL WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO ACCOMPLISH DURING YOUR TERM? The Courts are constantly striving to adjust to the changing dynamics that are faced by society. Rather than just reverting back to old programs that are costly and aren’t currently relevant; it is important for the Court to be open to new ideas in deciding the issues that come before the Court. In Piatt County, domestic violence and substance abuse increasingly impact the families in our community. As the presiding Judge of Piatt County, I will listen. I will listen to the needs and challenges facing Piatt County families, consider the information of the service providers in our community and effectively utilize those resources in my decision-making process to address these issues.
Budget restraints are a real challenge for a rural community like ours, so it is important that the Court utilize the resources currently in the community, with an eye to doing so in the most fiscally responsible manner.

WHY ARE YOU THE BEST CANDIDATE FOR THE OFFICE? I am the best candidate for the office because I have the most legal experience in all the matters that the Circuit Judge hears. In addition, I understand the needs of the community, because I have been actively involved in the community. These experiences allow me to be keenly aware of the effects the Court’s decisions have on a family.

DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? To highlight one area of my relevant experience, in reviewing the statistics provided by the Piatt County Circuit Clerk, I learned that our Circuit Judge routinely hears as many or more family law cases than felonies, misdemeanors and dui’s combined. Judges feel that family law cases, for example how a child’s parenting time and decision making should be divided amongst the child’s parents, are the most difficult decisions a Court has to make. I have extensive experience in these difficult cases having been appointed as a Guardian ad Litem in hundreds of cases over 30 years. The Guardian ad litem is considered “the eyes and ears of the Court” and it is the only legal role where the attorney answers directly to the Judge. In those cases, it is my role to investigate the facts of the case and based on these facts and the law, recommend to the Court my opinion of what would be in the best interests of the children. I have made hundreds of these types of parenting time recommendations to the Court in my career. This type of knowledge and experience is only obtained by working with families for over 30 years.
Our county is particularly fortunate to have had some of the best Judges I have had the pleasure of appearing before. It would be an honor to continue the exemplary tradition of the Judiciary in Piatt County; to serve my profession and our community as the next Piatt County Circuit Judge.

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