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WATCH: Judge Switzer a firm believer people can change

by Brandon Smith | September 19, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Judge Meredith Switzer in her courtroom. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

A unique dynamic -- a certain type of synergy -- occurs when two individual goals converge into one common, ultimate purpose. Whether that be the case of two teammates working together to win a championship title, or, perhaps more extraordinarily, when a person is fortunate enough to have their life's passion align with that of their occupation.

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The latter represents that of Meredith B. Switzer and her position as 41st District, Division 2, judge. After attending the University of Arkansas and receiving her juris doctorate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law, the Hot Springs native went into private practice at Rose Law Firm before some six years later, she began to have inklings of what she really wanted -- and felt called -- to do.

"I thought I wanted to be a 'big building attorney,'" she said. "You know, there's a lot of pressure to clerk for the biggest and the best firms when you're in law school, so I thought I wanted to be a commercial litigator. So I went and did that for about six years and it -- it was wearing me out, and wasn't really filling my cup. And so I decided I wanted to go into public service."

As one who likes to have that "personal element" to her approach, public service is, naturally, where Switzer found her stride. It takes a strong judge of character, she noted, to do her job -- routinely having to "feel out" each individual who appears before her in court.

"People can change," said the recently named Woman of the Year in The Sentinel-Record Reader's Choice Awards.

Switzer said her goal was to always come back to her hometown of Hot Springs. While she enjoyed working on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, which consisted predominantly of researching, analyzing and synthesizing cases, it involved very little contact with the public -- something she desired.

"Very solemn work, yes, but you don't realize, personally, that opportunity to help people on an individual basis," she said. "So I really did enjoy that work from an intellectual standpoint, but this is -- this is all heart here. You are seeing people every single day, sometimes at their best, sometimes at their worst, and it's a much more emotional, physical experience than being on the court of appeals. So in the spring of 2020, I ran for district judge to come back here. There was an opening because Judge (Ralph) Ohm retired and went to the circuit court and so I ran and was elected, and then I started back in January here on the bench."

Switzer was appointed to the bench in December 2016 before beginning her term the following month in the seat once held by her father -- longtime Garland County District Court Division 1 Judge David Switzer -- who served 37 years on the bench. Switzer was working for the attorney general at the time when her father, who was battling cancer, decided to step down and retire. It was the following morning after Gov. Asa Hutchinson called and offered her the position that her father passed away.

"I always considered that to be my dad holding on, you know, to make sure that his legacy was going to be taken care of," she said. "Whether it was me or anybody, just hopefully knowing that this place was going to be taken care of. Because he retired from the circuit bench but his heart was always in district court."

They say, "like father, like son," but in Switzer's case, it can be said, "like father, like daughter."

"He really liked working in district court because it is the place where you get the most contact with the public and you have the biggest opportunity to really help people," she said. "And I think that really inspired him. And so immediately I began working here -- went on bench two weeks later and did that for two years. And so I had a new baby and, you know, sold my home in Little Rock and moved to my property here and kind of took a leap of faith. And I'm so glad I did because it really ended up being a calling for me."

Switzer said the position was a "really, really good fit" for her skill set but she didn't know what she was going to do at the end of the two-year term as she couldn't succeed herself.

"I mean, I knew that day was coming," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to do, and so with my experience here, I really became interested in and inspired by the need for rehabilitation of substance abuse -- individuals who struggle with substance abuse and individuals who struggle with mental illness -- because we see so many individuals that struggle with those two issues here in court."

Switzer likens her early days of public service as a sort of roller coaster ride but noted her goal has always been to serve in her highest and best use -- whatever that may be.

"I've just been really fortunate to be called on to serve in these various capacities," she said. "I've been extremely fortunate to really enjoy all of these different opportunities to serve, but right now, this is what fills my cup -- working with people, helping people -- realizing that a lot of the people we see in district court are here because they've been caught in a cycle for whatever reason. And so I always try and look at people and meet them where they are when I see them and figure out, 'What can we do to break this cycle ... to effectuate real change in people?' So I've taken a bit of a different approach because my goal is -- I don't want to see you in here again. No offense, I mean, but I really don't want to see you in here again. I want you to resolve whatever the underlying issue is that brought you before me in the first place. Let's deal with that rather than put a Band-Aid on it. And I think this is where you get the most opportunity to do that -- to really, really make some change."

Switzer says mental health, in particular, is something she's always been very passionate about. It's something every single individual deals with in some form or fashion, she notes.

"Whether you're diagnosed or not, we all should be concerned about our mental wellness," she said.

Being attuned to that fact, Switzer feels, allows her to help the individual and find out what is best for them to help them climb out of that cycle. She said she once had a lady who had an unbelievable history of failing to appear and had clearly made some poor decisions in the past.

"She had a very large balance in my court," she said. "She had a very large reinstatement fee, like over $2,400 -- so think about that for a second. That means at the minimum of 24 occasions, she had failed to appear. She made an impassioned plea to me that day and something in my gut said 'give her a chance.' I'm not really sure what that is, and that's part of this job is -- it's instinct, it's gut, it's identifying 'who are the savables?' 'Who's worth another shot?' -- I try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt.

"The goal here, though, I think is identifying those that can be rehabilitated -- that can be redeemed. That's the job. So I have had, in the last month, probably four or five individuals who have come in here and have said, 'Judge, I thank you -- for forcing me to put in place a plan for getting my driver's license reinstated.' And I make them bring it to me. I want to see it. I want to hold it. I want to look at it. Because that right there -- that is the key to real change in people's lives. That fear is removed, and so it's cost-benefit analysis. I have to think to myself, you know, 'Is the $305 I could charge somebody for driving on a suspended license worth what I could get out of this person not coming back to court?' Because that's time-money resources. Law enforcement has to arrest them, clerks have to serve the warrant, my clerks have to prep the docket, I've got to have bailiffs -- Think about all the money that we spend just in processing one case for driving on suspended license. So that's the goal, is 'identify what the real issue is; don't just treat the symptoms of the problems.'"

The court is able to meet many people's needs through partnerships with local entities and outreach programs such as Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic, who help defendants find jobs, and others such as Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness and Harbor House, which helps provide substance abuse and mental health treatment. Her ultimate goal as district judge, she said, is to provide stability to those who come before her and give them the tools they need to achieve that stability.

"I've got a whole list of providers who assist the court in identifying what those needs are and assisting individuals and getting the resources they need to be successful," she said. "That's the goal. So yes -- I want you to be clean, dry and sober; I want you to show up to probation; I want you to show up on time and do what they ask you to do; But really, I want, when you leave the court system, for you to be more stable and for you to have in place the resources you need to be successful."

The Garland County District Court also helps people get their GEDs and enroll in certificate programs at National Park College. Switzer told the story of one young man getting ready to graduate from high school who had had issues with getting in trouble at school. As part of the school's alternative learning program, he had been working with a counselor, she said.

"And I said, 'Look, we're going to fix this; You're young; I can't afford to be seeing you in here for the next 30 years; We're going to identify kind of what the issues are,'" she said. "He was receiving mental health treatment, you know, for anger issues. He didn't have a lot of support at home or the right kind of support; Real low self-esteem."

Switzer said he began to do really good and she put him on probation.

"He and his counselor came once a month," she said. "I've got a mental health court docket. It's about 10, 12 individuals I've identified who the reason they're in here is because they've got a severe mental illness. Those individuals -- they don't need to be in jail. That's not the place for them. We need to treat the mental illness. That's a little difficult to do because you've got med management; you've got, you know, lack of providers; you've got to get them insurance; there's all kinds of obstacles to mental health care. So this young kid -- we start talking about, 'Well, what do you do?' He's actually a really hard worker -- works for a lawn care service -- and he graduated high school. I told him, I said, 'Look, I'm not able to come to your graduation but what we're going to do is, when you come next month, we're going to have a celebration.'"

Noting the importance of education in and of itself, Switzer said she tells young people, and even those older ones who have never received their high school diploma or GED, that education is something no one can ever take from them.

"I can take your freedom, I can take your driver's license, I could take your money -- No one can ever take your education," she said. "That is a rare thing, if you think about it. Nobody can ever take that diploma from you."

Switzer said when the young gentleman showed up to mental health court, they had a celebration, complete with cupcakes and balloons.

"We made a really big deal out of it to kind of inspire him," she said. "And, again, if he's willing to do that; If he's willing to get his diploma and I know that that's setting him up for a better future, I'm willing to work with him on fines and costs. I'm willing to forego other types of punitive sanctions, because I know we're getting more bang for our buck here. And he told me that day that -- because we have different providers and organizations here to provide support for these individuals -- he had enrolled in Adult Education at National Park College and he was going to begin a journeyman program for an electrician. So a kid who otherwise may not have graduated high school; may not have had much of a future ahead of him; we, at least, are setting him on the right path with the hope that we don't see him in here again."

Switzer is known for the individual amount of time she spends talking with defendants and touts solid communication as the ultimate key to unlocking the answer for each individual defendant.

"I have to hope that it's going to pay off," she said of the communication aspect. "There's some research, and I don't know what the current number is, but for every additional minute you spend with a defendant, the likelihood of them reoffending is reduced significantly. So my philosophy is -- You know, I was reading last night actually about what it is that makes a good judge and I read something that really spoke to me -- It's the desire to understand human life. I sometimes have to put myself in their place. And I'm a single mom; I've lost my dad; I've changed jobs; I've moved; I've been through a divorce. You know, I've been through a fair share of tough stuff. And I think about, on my worst day, how tough it is just to make ends meet. You know, being a single mom, getting where you need to go ... I try to empathize; I try to relate to these experiences. Not only does it humble me but it makes me a more accurate, more just judge. And so, yeah, I do take a little bit of extra time but I just have to believe that it will pay off in the long run."


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