WASHINGTON CITY – With the retirement of the city’s long-serving justice judge, the Washington City Council approved the appointment of a new judge from among their own during a council meeting Wednesday night.
“You’re the right guy for Washington City,” Mayor Ken Neilson said to Councilman Thad Seegmiller after announcing he had picked him to replace outgoing justice judge Lee Bunnell.
Seegmiller, who has served on the Washington City Council for seven years, was one of 11 candidates who applied for the job, Neilson said. After the Washington County Nominating Commission reviewed the 11 candidates and narrowed it to four who were presented to the mayor for consideration, Seegmiller rose to the top.
The appointment received a unanimous vote.
“We’ll certainly miss him as a part of our City Council,” Councilman Jeff Turek said.
Though the appointment is immediate, Seegmiller said he may not be at the bench until February. Before he can officially assume the role of a justice judge, he needs to become certified with the state and take care of some processing issues on that end.
The appointment will require Seegmiller to resign from the City Council. He anticipates that resignation being effective at the start of year, which may likely open the way for a potential interim appointee to finish out the remainder of his term.
“I felt it was important I take the values I’ve been given as a citizen growing up here and the things I’ve learned as a council member and translate them toward our community court,” Seegmiller said, adding that as an attorney he believes his professional experience will also be beneficial.
Washington City’s justice court, or “city-level court” if you will, primarily deals with misdemeanor-level offenses and ordinance violations.
As a justice judge, one deals with a lot of domestic violence issues, DUI offenses and thefts from places like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, Bunnell said.
Bunnell has served as the justice judge since 1982 and is retiring due to state mandate. Once a judge reaches 75, they can finish their term, yet it is required they step down after that point.
He’s learned a lot as a city judge over the last 35 years, Bunnell said prior to the council meeting, adding that it has caused his outlook to change over the years.
“If you’re going to change behavior, you need to educate people,” Bunnell said. “Punishment doesn’t change behavior, though it will get their attention and can help them change. … That’s what my approach is.”
There will be some things about the part-time job Bunnell will miss, like the associations with municipal and judicial officials, he said. Some other aspects of the job though, not so much, he said.
Bunnell’s primary career has been that of an educator, specifically as a biology professor at Dixie State University – granted, it was known as Dixie College at the time. He’s also served as the coach of the university’s football team in the past.
Prior to his appointment, Bunnell didn’t have have a background in law, as it isn’t a requirement for the position. However, justice judges do receive extensive and continuing legal training as a part of the job.
“Judge Bunnell has been a great leader in the community,” Seegmiller said. “He’s done an excellent job. … I think he’s left a big chair and big boots to fill.”
What Bunnell may do now that he’s retired remains to be seen.
“I don’t know yet. My wife hasn’t told me what I’m doing yet,” he said with a laugh.
Between Jan. 1, 2017, and when Seegmiller officially takes the bench, Neilson said the city’s justice court will be temporarily overseen by other area judges.
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