Steve Thomas
Attorney at Law

Chapter 4

Conflict of Interest

In this short chapter I wish to consider what I believe Judge Finson himself should have done under the circumstances described in Chapter 3.

Certainly, being appointed judge to replace the legendary John P. Shonkwiler was a great honor and a significant achievement of a lifetime. There was this conflict, however. Surely Judge Finson was aware, when he applied for the position, that if he was appointed he could not hear most of the criminal cases in Piatt County.

I wrote a letter to Judge Finson, explaining my view of things, and stating my opinion that the Constitution did not permit a resident Circuit Judge to be only a part-time judge for his home county, for whatever reason. I received no response.

Judge Finson took office in 2012 to serve out the remainder of Judge Shonkwiler’s term, which ended in 2014. He then had to run for the position in the 2014 election. Although it was really too late in the election year, I felt I had a duty to bring this to the attention of the Piatt County voters. All I could do was run against Judge Finson as a write-in candidate in the 2014 election – my name would not be on the ballot. Since I had little money to spend on the effort and little time to raise support (I did get a few signs up), the result was predictable. Although many of the people I talked to agreed with my position, even some other judges in the circuit, not enough of the voters were aware of this situation, apparently, to make a difference in the election.

I took the matter to the press, but no one was interested in writing about it; apparently it involved too many technical legal details, and after all, the courts had ruled against me.

If I knew that I could not serve the county more than one or two days of the week for whatever reason, I would not have applied for the position or accepted the appointment. I would let someone serve who could serve the county as the Constitution intended. If the position were circuit-wide, not that of a resident Circuit Judge, voted on by all voters in the circuit, that would be different.

Since 2012, there has been a parade of judges from outside Piatt County who have had to fill the shoes of Circuit Judge in Judge Finson’s place in criminal cases as well as civil cases involving former clients of Judge Finson (he practiced law in Piatt County for years prior to his appointment as judge). In my opinion, this has hurt the administration of justice in this county, even though each of these fill-in judges did as well under the circumstances as might be expected. I believe Piatt County citizens have been deprived of their constitutional right to their own resident Circuit Judge.

Judge Finson is retiring in 2020, so that, at least, will change. However, his niece, Ms. Rhoades, is running for the position. If she is elected, the all the cases her office is now handling will have to be heard by a different judge, because of conflict of interest, and Piatt County will still be without the judge to which it is entitled for some time to come.