Sitting behind the judge’s desk in Athens County Common Pleas Court this week was a member of the media, and he felt right at home. But going from asking questions for news stories to deciding cases is not as much of a stretch as one might think for WOUB Director Tom Hodson.
Monday, Hodson was granted a do-over in his career, a chance to relive his prior life as a man of the court. Hodson spent many a year as an attorney and a judge in Athens County before trading in his legal notebook for that of a reporter. And, judging by the smile gracing his face while he sat behind his temporary desk, Hodson was more than enjoying his second chance as a judge.
“It’s been a thrill. It’s a thrill to be back in my home county and doing this again. I’ve realized how much I’ve missed it in many ways,” said Hodson, who also previously served as director of OU’s journalism school.
In December, Judge Michael Ward announced he was retiring, but agreed to hear cases until a replacement was found and stayed in that role until Monday. Local attorney George McCarthy was named last week by Gov. John Kasich to replace Ward on the bench, but isn’t taking the oath of office until today and won’t start work until Tuesday. That left a hole in the schedule, one that Judge L. Alan Goldsberry asked Hodson to fill.
“Judge Goldsberry asked me if I would be available during the break between the two judges and so I went to my dean and asked if he minded if I took some vacation time. He had no objections, so I took a week’s vacation and here I am,” Hodson said.
Hodson is a former judge of Athens County Municipal Court and Athens County Common Pleas Court, and left the latter position in 1986 to become a judicial fellow in the administrative office of the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the fellowship, he returned to the full-time practice of law in Athens, which prohibited him from serving as a visiting judge from 1987 to 2001. A move to Marietta College as director of the school’s media program meant he was no longer a fulltime attorney and he could hear cases as a visiting judge, and the same was true when in came to work for OU in 2003 — although at that time Hodson decided not to take on any new cases and only worked on the cases he had already overseen. That is, until Goldsberry called.
“This was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up because I had not served here since September of 2006. This was an opportunity to come back and serve and help out,” Hodson said. “I loved being judge here in Athens County. I was always sorry that I had to give up that position to do the Supreme Court position.
“Now, to be able to come back even for a short time and get the opportunity for a do-over, so to speak, you don’t get many do-overs in life so when you get one, it’s a thrill,” he said. “To come back and have that opportunity is personally thrilling.”
Hodson was 38-years-old when he was last common pleas court judge. Now, at 64, he sees the black robe much differently.
“I have to say in the years between times, I have matured a great deal. I think that I have a much better judicial temperament now than I did back then. I was far more feisty back then and opinionated back then than I am now. Now I seem to go with the flow a little better. No one’s goaded me to lose my temper this week,” Hodson said with a laugh.
When asked about the differences in the job now versus then, Hodson pointed out the digital age and its advancements with keeping up with cases, but he also said that in his prior time as judge he never had a case involving heroin. Most drug cases were related to marijuana with the occasional cocaine or LSD case thrown in. Now, heroin and methamphetamine permeate the calendar, not just with possession charges but the impact on other crimes such as thefts and crimes of violence, Hodson said.
However, “some things don’t change. Some of the same kinds of charges, same kind of people are committing the same kind of offenses,” Hodson said. “You get people who are distressed when victimized and rightfully so. Those things are universal and never change.”
Hodson said his main goal as a judge is that everyone involved in the process feel that they have been treated fairly, win or lose.
Hodson also drew comparisons to his career at WOUB.
“As a judge, sometimes you have ask questions, and as a news person you have to ask questions,” Hodson said. “The ability to phrase a question to get an answer that’s necessary and not get spin or people trying to spin it their own way and see through that to try to get to the truth of the matter, that’s very similar in the news business as it is to being judge.”
He noted another similarity.
“You have to take complex terms or situations and deliver it in an understandable way that’s not condescending. That’s the same in the news business as it is in the courtroom in trying to communicate,” he said.
Asked whether he would like to continue to be a judge, Hodson admitted that he would be open to taking cases on a visiting basis but said he’s happy away from the bench as well.
“I love doing what I’m doing now (at WOUB) and wouldn’t want to trade it on a fulltime basis, but it’s been a thrill,” he said.