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Big changes coming to prosecutor’s office

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

 

For the past two decades there have been few changes at the Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. But that’s about to change.

Over the next few months, two longtime prosecutors will be leaving, a third will take over the reigns as head prosecutor pending a November special election, and a Pulaski County native is joining to staff to begin his law career.

“Me and Skip leaving is going to be a pretty significant change around here,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor. Fleenor is leaving prosecuting for a circuit court judgeship in Montgomery and Floyd counties, while Skip Schwab is retiring.

Each has at least 30-year careers in the law.

For further details on Schwab’s career and other changes at to the office, see upcoming issues of The Southwest Times.

Fleenor was contacted in February to come to Richmond to interview for available judgeships. He said he had expressed an interest in becoming a judge a number of years ago and interviewed for positions in 2010 and 2012.

Asked whether becoming a judge is the ultimate goal of an attorney, Fleenor said he thinks it’s dependent upon each person.

“For a long time I wasn’t sure whether it was something I’d like to do,” he said. “I look at kind of like switching from being a player to a referee. I’m not sure a lot of people want to do that. A lot like being on one side or the other or being in the fight, if you will.”

But Fleenor eventually decided it was an avenue he wished to pursue, so he let it be known there was an interest on his part.

That doesn’t mean he won’t miss the job he has done since being elected commonwealth’s attorney for Pulaski County in 1999 and taking over the position Jan. 1, 2000.

“When you do the same thing every day for 20 years and almost nine years before that as a lawyer,” you’re bound to miss it, he says. “I’ve been practicing law for right at 30 years and now I’m giving all of that up.”

So, how does someone who has been a prosecutor for 20 years transition to a judge — giving equal consideration to both sides of a case?

During his interview before Virginia General Assembly, Fleenor said a couple of lawmakers asked him some pretty pointed questions to that effect.

“I think it’s actually easier than most people think,” he said. “When you’re a lawyer and you’ve been doing it for a while, in order to be effective, I think, you need to analyze cases from all points of view. So, you’re naturally looking at what the other side is going to argue every time you have a case.”

He said most people believe the job of a prosecutor is to convict, but that’s really not the case. There are times when convictions and lengthy sentences are appropriate, such as in murders, but he says there are also times when justice takes another form.

“The prosecutor’s role is to seek justice. That’s very different from the defense lawyer’s role, which is to get an acquittal,” Fleenor said. “Sometime seeking justice doesn’t involve a conviction; sometimes it means an alternative punishment, like drug court or some form of program that seeks to rehabilitate.

“When the goal is to seek justice, I think it’s easier to make that transition to judge because I think that’s what a judge does, too. I really don’t think that will be hard,” he said.

Since the question of a prosecutor becoming a judge apparently is so frequently contemplated anyway, he believes it’ll make him more conscious of any pitfalls that could occurred.

“When you have a point raised so often it becomes manifest in your head and you become overtly conscious of not doing that,” he said.

There are two aspects of being a judge Fleenor thinks will be most challenging: hearing civil matters and handling a backlog of cases stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to civil cases, Fleenor says, “I haven’t done civil cases in 20 years. During this downtime we’ve had due to the [corona]virus I’ve been trying to go back and read as much as I can, and study and review divorce and domestic relations, property division, personal injury, contracts, deeds, real estate law.”

All levels of courts across the Commonwealth are facing large backloads of cases due to physical distancing and other requirements placing restrictions on holding court.

“I don’t know exactly when we’re going to get started back, whenever that time is it’s going to take months and months — maybe even a year or more to catch up. So, that’s going to be a huge challenge right from the start,” Fleenor said. Since this interview Virginia Supreme Court has given the OK for courts to resume holding trials May 18 as long as distancing and other conditions can safely be met.

Fleenor still has several cases scheduled the third week in June in Pulaski County. When he takes his seat on the bench July 1, he’ll be thrown into the fire quick.

“The first day I walk in there I have a jury trial. It’s an abduction, strangulation and malicious wounding — at least I’ve (tried) that before,” he said.

An important aspect of being a judge also is being a good listener. Although he acknowledges he’s not always been a good listener in some situations — such as when it comes to his children —he’s working on it and it is stressed in training sessions he has been taking online.

Due to the pandemic, judgeship training that normally would have been taken in person has to be done online right now. Fleenor has a week of training still scheduled in-person for the second week of June, but he won’t be surprised if it ends up online, too.

Asked whether he will ever be able to return to Pulaski County as a judge, Fleenor said it’s possible several years down the road, but not at the start. He can serve as judge anywhere in the 27th Judicial Circuit, which has six circuit court judges serving nine localities.

What happens if he doesn’t like being a judge and wants to return to prosecuting?

“I’d have to run against Justin Griffith, I guess. We’d have a knock-down, drag out election I guess,” Fleenor said with a laugh. Griffith is the senior Pulaski County prosecutor who is filling Fleenor’s position pending a special election to be held in November.

Fleenor guessed there have been past judges who didn’t like their positions and returned to private practice or prosecution, but he couldn’t think of any.

A native of Pulaski County, Fleenor graduated Pulaski County High School in 1983. After graduating from Virginia Tech, he entered law school at Mississippi College in Jackson, Miss., graduating in 1991. He then returned home, working for the Crowell, Nuchols and Aust law firm in Pulaski until being elected commonwealth’s attorney.

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