ST. CLAIRSVILLE – After 24 years on the bench, Belmont County Common Pleas Court Judge Jennifer L. Sargus is stepping down at the end of May.
She noted that fairness and high standards have been the aspiration of her courtroom proceedings.
“I try to have an atmosphere that was quiet and receptive. A place where people could come and the truth would not be a stranger, a fear, would not be something they would shirk from but rather something that they could become comfortable with, and they could come to terms with the present and move on into the future. It was important to me that when people would be in court they could see a crisis is actually an opportunity.”
In describing a judge’s duties, Sargus noted the importance of balancing the role of precedent in providing a framework for cases while at the same time weighing each case as a unique situation.
Sargus reflected over her time on the common pleas bench and how the types of cases she has ruled over have changed – chiefly the prevalence of drug cases and cases where drugs were a motive.
“This county 24 years ago had virtually no offenses involving drugs. There were fewer violent offenses,” she said. “The crime docket here has increased enormously in 24 years.”
Sargus noted that Belmont County shares in the conditions of rising drug-related crime that are impacting much of the nation.
“It’s a serious problem,” she said. “It really tells you how uniform this country is. The problems that people face in other states and other places, bigger cities, are really very similar to what people in rural areas experience as well.”
Sargus had the duty of presiding over a wide variety of cases, many of which dealt with serious crimes and touched on multiple lives. A particular case that stands out in her mind was the brutal murder of four people in St. Clairsville in 1999. She praised the work of law enforcement and others involved in pursuing justice, adding that this and other cases will remain with them.
“Those memories don’t just dissolve,” she said.
In dealing with cases where pain, grief and high emotion are factors, Sargus underlined the importance of judicial neutrality.
“You throw a coin up in the air and the job of most people is to call heads or tails. The job of a judge is when that coin is mid-air, to see both heads and tails. To see both sides of the equation, and that requires you to a lot of times recognize when your own feelings are interfering and to the very best of your ability leave them outside.”
Sargus described empathy as among the most important qualities a judge should cultivate.
“The word ‘judgment’ has no good place in a court,” she said.
“One need only grow older to grow gentler in one’s judgments,” Sargus said, quoting the philosopher Goethe.
Sargus’ earliest influences were related to law. She recounted growing up in a household where both parents were lawyers who served others in the course of their careers, and her mother served as a judge. Both were active in the field of workers compensation and helping people gain their deserved benefits for work related conditions.
She said these examples helped to instill a sense of purpose and vision of what the field should be.
“I unconsciously absorbed the idea that with law, you serve purposes,” she said.
Sargus’ term also broke new ground. She has the distinction of being the first female judge to serve in the county.
“I think this county is very open to women officeholders,” she said. “Women have done very well in the courthouse.”
She also spoke about the camaraderie of her fellow judges despite the isolating nature of the position. She also praised the courthouse staff.
“I will miss the people I work with. Wonderful people,” she said.
Sargus also noted the renewed economic future of the area. Much of the litigation going through the courts is regarding land rights.
“I always thought of this county when I was younger as a place that was like a fallow field,” she said in reference to the declined coal industry and the tendency of children to move away from the area. “The fracking industry has changed things enormously.”
Sargus said the county’s natural resources have brought new hopes and opportunities.
“Suddenly the land has given birth to the riches of its own,” she said. “Which is a tremendous difference in the way people of this county are living now.”
Her replacement will be appointed by the governor to fill the interim term. Those interested in the position must declare candidacy for the upcoming election. The cases Sargus has not closed by her retirement will go to the succeeding judge.
Sargus is looking forward to spending more time with family. She will also be available to act as a visiting judge if needed. She will begin teaching a class at Ohio State’s law school in the fall.
“It’s been a joy to serve the people of Belmont County. They are great people.”