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District Court Judge, District 18, Division 25

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  • Sean Hatfield

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    James Thompson

Biographical Information

What is the appropriate role of the courts in today’s society? How would you best communicate that role to improve public understanding in your district?

What are the most pressing problems facing this District court? How do you propose handling these issues?

Please address the issue of maintaining impartiality, given the need to raise funds and solicit sponsorships for political campaigns.

What, if any, steps should our state take concerning the juvenile offender population? What do you see as the root cause of Juvenile offenses? What, if any, alternatives to current practice would you consider?

What, if any, steps [will you/should our state] take concerning the overall prison population?

How can the court system address the inequalities in our justice system?

How can the court become more transparent so the public has a view of the judges’ work?

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Personal Biography James is a father, husband, civil rights attorney, Army Infantry veteran, Stage IV cancer survivor, and former candidate for Congress. James grew up in poverty and homelessness. After being honorably discharged from his active duty enlistment, James attended WSU and then Washburn law school. James has been practicing law in Wichita since he graduated and passed the bar exam in 2003. The adversity in James’s life gives him a unique perspective and understanding to bring to the judicial bench.
Education B.A. Political Science - Wichita State University 1995-1999; Juris Doctorate - Washburn Law School 2000-2003 Passed the bar exam 2003.
Community/Public Service Organized the Wichita Bar Association's participation in providing pro bono legal services for homeless veterans. Prior member of Racial Profiling Advisory Board. Former Board Member Veterans Village of Wichita - providing homes for homeless and low income veterans. Founded the Veterans Legal Association of Washburn (VLAW) while in law school. Organized charitable donations for victims of the Joplin, Missouri tornado, the Moore, Oklahoma Tornado, and Hurricane Harvey. Volunteered for searches and cleanup for the Joplin, Missouri Tornado. Volunteered for cleanup in the Moore, Oklahoma tornado. Volunteered to help clean up Eureka, Kansas after the tornado in 2018.
Address Wichita, Kansas.
Our courts are supposed to be the last bastion in our democracy free from the partisan divide that plagues our country. Consequently, our courts must uphold the Constitution, and the laws of our nation and state, without regard to ideological pursuits. Every court must faithfully adhere to the law as it is written, not as they would like it to be. By the same token, empathy and open mindedness, in addition to the constitutional obligations of justice and fairness, must act as the four corners of the foundation for the court’s application of the law. Actions speak louder than words. The best manner to communicate the role of the courts is to show the public through actions and decisions that our court system will always seek justice through applying the law with fairness, equality, and wisdom.
In the Sedgwick County Court, like most other courts in the country, one of the most pressing problems is simply the sheer number of cases that are filed with too few judges to handle them. In 2018, there were 67,500 cases filed in Sedgwick County. Despite this, Sedgwick County District Court is recognized nationally for being a leader in reducing delay. One way to help further reduce delay would be to implement a program similar to what they have in Shawnee County District Court where a pool of law clerks assist judges in researching the law and drafting legal opinions. I worked in Shawnee County District Court as a law clerk while in law school. It provides dual benefits to the judges who can complete more cases, and to the law clerks who gain priceless legal experience and guidance from the judges. With today’s technology such as Zoom, there is no reason such a program cannot be implemented here.
Plainly speaking, our system of electing judges in Sedgwick County needs to be changed from a partisan process to a non-partisan process. Political affiliation has absolutely nothing to do with the application of the law and should have no place in our judicial elections. As it stands, the local rules force a partisan election, while judicial ethics prohibit being partisan. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan climate, the letter behind a person’s name is a more likely indication of electability than the person’s skill and merit, which is shameful and creates distrust in our elected officials.
I grew up in poverty and was even homeless as a teenager, so when I see juvenile offenders, I can’t help but think that there, but for the grace of God, go I. In my experience, poverty, broken homes, and lack of opportunity are the root causes of juvenile offenses. I think that when addressing juvenile offenses, our courts must apply the law with grace and an eye towards redemption for the offender. We must find ways to ensure that childhood mistakes do not turn into lifelong scarlet letters preventing juveniles from being successful adults. Too often we see a pipeline of juvenile offenders from broken homes, to a broken foster care system, to sex trafficking where they are treated as criminals instead of victims. We must begin identifying potential victims earlier through intervention programs in Child in Need of Care cases and juvenile offenses. I would like to see a sex trafficking court in Sedgwick County, which would be the first in Kansas.
First and foremost, we must apply the law as written. Where the law allows it, our courts should exercise the discretion of our better angels to find alternative avenues for non-violent cases such as drug courts, veteran courts, and sex trafficking courts. The specialty courts should emphasize solving the root problems that led to the offense, such as drug abuse, mental health issues, or abuse at home. Judges must ask themselves whether jail time is the best option based on the facts of each case and rule accordingly.
Statistics clearly show inequality is rampant in our criminal justice system, especially in matters of race. When African Americans make up more than 30% of the prison population, but are only 6% of the state population, there is a problem. We also see problems with class inequality where people with financial resources can post bail but those without money must sit in jail. Recognizing and acknowledging that inequality exists, and understanding where the different inequalities intersect, is an important first step in reducing it. Our courts must also understand the role implicit bias plays in every step of the process from arrest, to charging, to jury selection, to decisions and punishment. It is incumbent upon every court to remain vigilant and eradicate such prejudice and bias wherever it is found in the courthouse.
Sedgwick County court hearings are now streamed on Youtube. This allows for a much greater transparency of our judicial process. I think this should continue and be the standard for every case after COVID for all public hearings. I would like to see the use of social media to highlight the good things being done in our courts. We have a great judicial bench overall. We should let the public see the good things being done by them and the staff. Each judge’s webpage on the 18th Judicial District website could provide links to written decisions issued by the individual judges, which would help create greater transparency in the process and as to how the law is applied.