Arkansas' First Female Circuit Court Judge with Master's degree discusses pretrial and bail reform

Jun 5, 2019

Circuit Judge Cindy Thyer is no stranger to Northeast Arkansas. 

She has served as District 4 curcuit judge in Arkansas' Second judicial curcuit for over a decade.  Prior to being circuit judge Thyer served as prosceuting attorney for Craighead County.  However, according to a press relase from the Arkansas Supreme Court, Thyer earned another title:  Arkansas' first female judge to graduate with a  Master's degree in Judicial Studies from the National Judicial College.

Circuit Judge Cindy Thyer
Credit Arkansas Judiciary Website

The world-renown college at the University of Nevada at Reno teaches judges who are seeking to furthur their knowledge of the justice system.  Various other judges in Arkansas have participated in the program, including Circuit Judge Tim Fox of Little Rock and former University of Arkansas law professor and former Polk County District Court Judge Jerry "Jake" Looney, who passed away in 2018.

Thyer wrote a thesis while obtaining her Master's degree which focused on bail and pretrial reform.  According to the Arkansas Supreme Court press relase, Shawn Marsh, Director of the Judicial Studies program at the University of Nevada at Reno said Thyer's thesis "is not only an exellent piece of scholarship with implications for Arkansas but also a meaningful and timely additon to the larger field of judicial studies."

Marsh said about 25% of the National Judicial College program's graduates have been women, though the current student makeup is about half women.  Thyer told KASU News that all judges in Arkansas are encouraged by the state's administrative office of the courts to take a class offered by the college called General Jurisdiction, in which she said many judges have taken.

Thyer spoke to KASU's Brandon Tabor about her jounrey in obtaining her Master's degree, her research in pretrial and bail reform, and her ambitions now that she has received her degree.

--TRANSCRIPT--

BRANDON TABOR, HOST:

Cindy Thyer has served as a Circuit Judge in Arkansas Second Judicial Circuit for over a decade which covers Northeast Arkansas. She has also been a deputy prosecuting attorney for Craighead County and also engaged in a private practice. But recently she earned another title--Arkansas's first female judge to graduate with a Master's degree from the National Judicial College. The college teaches judges across the nation who are looking to further their knowledge of the justice system.  Her thesis on bail and pretrial reform has been held as 'a meaningful and timely addition to the larger field of judicial studies.' She joins me here in the studio. Thank you for joining me.

CINDY THYER: Well, thank you for having me.

TABOR: You've been in law for a long time. What made you fall in love with law and in the judicial system?

THYER: I was actually a business major, and at the end of that degree realized that, in the world we live in, these days having just a business degree, I didn't feel like that was sufficient. I was working at that time for a law firm in Little Rock and had exposure to different kinds of cases, and that really piqued my interest in the law. And so I decided at that point to pursue a law degree just to further expand my horizons and learn more about how I could use the business degree. I didn't realize that the time I would finish with the Juris doctorate and be engaged in private practice and enjoy that as much as I did.

TABOR: Oh, wow. So you found a connection to doing law. I mean, doing business and then going into law. 

THYER: Yes.

TABOR: A little bit of background. What is the National Judicial College, for those who might not know what that is? 

THYER: The National Judicial College has been on the campus of the University of Nevada at Reno for over 50 years, I believe now.  It was created with the mindset that there needed to be a venue and an opportunity for judges to receive specific education that further their experience in the law and further their understanding for the cases that they were handling on a day-in and day-out basis. So it partnered with the University of Nevada at Reno and they offer both a master's degree and a doctorate degree and you can choose to do that either in their trial judges program or in a family law program. And I chose the trial judge's major because that's more in line with the work that I do as a judge on a regular basis.

TABOR: Okay. So how did you find out about the National Judicial College?

THYER: In Arkansas, when you're first elected as a judge the administrative office of the courts encourages new judges to go to Reno, Nevada for a particular course that they offer called General Jurisdiction. It's a two-week course that covers the gamut of contempt issues with litigants to substantive law involving criminal and civil and domestic relations cases.  Even covering security issues that you might face as a judge. And so that is encouraged in the state of Arkansas and quite a number of judges in Arkansas have gone through that course.

TABOR: All right, so you've been very, very busy. And as you said the college is all the way in Reno, Nevada. How did you do classes? Were you doing it online or were you traveling to Reno, or was it a combination of both, or how were you doing that?

THYER: Because the degree is a partnership with the National Judicial College and the University of Nevada at Reno, the National Judicial College courses can actually occur in different places across the United States and those courses on average would be a shorter period of time; typically, about a week. They are very strict, in you're required to report-in and they 'ring bells', and you have a lot of expectations for the work that you do in the projects that you do, and the reading required of you.  But, through those courses, I took a couple at the University of Mississippi at Oxford and so I didn't have as far to go so that didn't put as much of a disadvantage on trying to get away for travel because it's just a short drive there. But I took those courses in Washington DC and in Oxford, Mississippi. I think the death penalty course that I took it was in Naples, Florida. And so, those National Judicial College courses happened both on campus and across the U.S.  But, the University of Nevada--Reno courses, those were two weeks in length each and those happened actually on the campus in Reno.  I would just have to schedule those in advance and make sure I didn't have any particular cases set, and if I did, I had to move them so I could be able to be away for two weeks to engage in that course work.

TABOR: Okay, so that's terrific. So, they worked with you and--I mean they obviously know that you're busy on the bench--so they worked with you and you were able to go to different places and travel to different places and take the classes that you needed to take.

THYER: Yes, and the really nice thing about this course work is you can choose which courses are best suited for the type of work that do as a judge.  So once we would receive the calendars and the schedule of courses, that would give us the opportunity to choose which ones to attend and give us enough time to be able to work our court calendars around that.

TABOR: So did you meet any interesting judges while you were doing your classes?

THYER: Absolutely.  A few come to mind. First of all, judges in St. Louis, Missouri; Sarasota, Florida; San Francisco; Philadelphia--we have actually formed a group where we stay in touch with one another.  When I recently had a meeting in Philadelphia, I've had several and, in probably the past two or three years, I've connected up with this judge I met in Philadelphia and it gave me the opportunity to observe how they perform certain court functions there and it actually gave me the opportunity to come back here and put some of those ideas in practice. I thought if in Philadelphia, they are able to have civil cases that aren't older than two years old, then how do they do that and what ideas can we bring back here? So, that was completely separate from the coursework. But that's just one example of how those relationships really do continue your legal education and your justice management case flow in that respect. And I also had a judge that I met that I stay in touch with from Nigeria who's been a part of these courses and she graduated with me just two weeks ago in Nevada with the same degree that I did. So there are judges from all over the world that come to those courses.

TABOR: All right. So, you were the first, you are the first, female judge in the state to graduate with a Master's in Judicial Studies. What does that mean to you?

THYER: I'll have to be really honest.  When I went down this path to pursue my Master's Degree I did not know that I was going to be the first female to have the Master's Degree. I knew that there were several other judges who were involved in the program. There's Judge Tim Fox from Little Rock who had obtained his Master's degree while I was involved in this process.  Also, one of my former law Professors, Jake Looney was a Circuit Judge at the time and he obtained a couple of master's degree and, I want to say, at least one doctorate in that program. So those two judges were the ones I would reach out to if I had questions about the program, but it never occurred to me that I was the first, or about to be the first, female to obtain the degree until I got back from Nevada recently. That's when I learned about that.

TABOR: Does it feel cool or is it just different or...?

THYER: It's an honor for sure. It really is. I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to learn what I've learned and participate in the course work and that really is an honor.

TABOR: Okay. Well, terrific! Well again, congratulations to you on that. 

THYER: Thank you. 

TABOR: Let's get into your thesis a little bit.  It focused on bail and pretrial reform. Could you get into a little bit about your thesis and tell me how you came up with that as your thesis?

THYER: I handle a pretty sizable criminal docket in Jonesboro and also in Blytheville. I do have a smaller criminal docket in Corning. Across the nation, there have been a lot of recent conversations about what we can do to try to improve upon what happens with those individuals that we have in detention awaiting trial, how can we shorten that period of time before they come to trial, and are people who are held in detention the ones that---looking at the big picture---we want to be held in detention. And so what I mean by that is I don't think anyone would question that some defendants must be detained pretrial to ensure their appearance in court and or to protect the safety of the community, but there are individuals who are held simply because they're not able to make a money bail. And so what what's been seen nationwide, and what's been seen in Arkansas, is that you could have two similarly situated defendants and each have the same amount of bond, but the one with means would be able to pay his or her way out of court, but the one who did not have means would have to stay in detention until the case is heard.  And you have to remember that they're presumed innocent until they have a trial. So, I was really watching through preparation of this thesis what other states were doing across the nation and in hopes that Arkansas could have a conversation about how we could improve. One of the first things I realized about Arkansas is that we really keep no data to tell us how many people we are keeping in detention for any given time pretrial and how much those bonds are and what we're doing in terms of the time that their first detained until the time their trial takes place. And I think an important first step is for us to collect that data to determine how much of a problem that it is and to be able to identify some ways that we can keep the people in jail who are a community safety risk or who are a flight risk, but make sure other services are in place where those who aren't one of those risks may have the opportunity to remain free pending a trial.

TABOR: Okay. So while you were working on your thesis, how did the research impact your position as a judge?

THYER: Well, I think one of the most important things to take away from this is I recognize that I am a Circuit Judge and, if you remember back in your civics classes, I'm one of only three branches of government and so my duty is to follow the existing rules and the existing law, but at the same time hopefully identify some issues that legislators can address. I'm not a legislator and I don't think it's appropriate for me to be making law in this area. But I hope that my experience and the experience of other judges and others in the justice system can communicate with those others so that good laws can be put in place and good rules can be put in place so that we can address these issues.

TABOR: You were looking at other states, you know, California last year, you know, they decided to do away with cash bail recently and then, New Jersey and Washington DC, they also have similar policies in place and I think in California, you know, they got rid of it, but then there's this unintended consequence that the bail bondsman started rising up and saying that doing away with cash bail is kind of hurting our business. It's a really dicey situation to deal with because if you get rid of cash bail at one point, then it could be like, I guess, a Jenga situation.

THYER: That's a complicated situation, you know.  One of the recommendations from my thesis is that a task force be created to address the complexities of this issue and even having the voice of the commercial bail industry to weigh-in on that. I know that their position is that they do provide an important service because if there is a defendant who does not appear for court, they have an incentive to locate that person and bring that person back to court.  They argue that if commercial bail is not a part of that equation, then we're putting a heavier burden on state resources and county and city resources that they may not have to try to locate those individuals. And so that's part of what has to be addressed through that task force.  But, you're right, California did move forward and, I understand now, most of that's been put on hold because there's now a referendum it's going to be taking place in the Fall. So I don't think anything's moving forward until that has occurred.  But, one thing I did notice, not just California, but other jurisdictions is, Arkansas has an opportunity to address this issue early on; proactively.  Other jurisdictions, taking Harris County, Texas, for example, their opportunity came by way of very expensive litigation where equal protection challenges and other constitutional challenges were made to how they dealt with pretrial detainees. And I think one of the last numbers I saw for Harris County, Texas put them at about $9 million for that litigation. And so seeing that other states have looked at this and, I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all proposition, but I think it is a signal to us that there is a problem and has been a problem nationwide, and I think globally, with this issue and this is a really good time for us to examine it so that we're not doing this in response to litigation.

TABOR: So you have your master's degree now.  You've done a thesis. Can we expect to see a dissertation and a doctorate in your future?

THYER: Let's see in the future perhaps but not anytime too soon. It has been really difficult to find the time to finish this thesis this year with a very full time job and a family.  It's taken a lot of time, a lot of weekends, [and] a lot of mornings and lunches. So there may be a point when I take it further, but right now I think I'm going to enjoy a few weekends first and recapture some of that personal time before I forge ahead.

TABOR: I understand. It takes a lot of work to get that doctor.

THYER: It does.  I have a whole new appreciation for people who work full-time and try to pursue degrees and advanced degrees. I really do.

TABOR: Yes. It's not easy. 

THYER: It's not.

TABOR: Cindy Thyer, Division Four Circuit Court Judge in Arkansas Second Judicial District, which covers extreme in Northeast Arkansas including Craighead County. Thank you so much for joining me today.

THYER: Thank you so much.