Having earned the distinction of the longest-serving judge in the Richland County area—ever—Judge James D. Henson is retiring in early February, 2014. His replacement has big shoes to fill.
After working in the county's prosecutor’s office for seven years, on January 1, 1981 Henson began his illustrious career as a judge serving the Richland County area in the General Division Court, hearing both criminal and civil cases. However, his law practice began in the Cleveland area, and he also served as an FBI officer, in the Army, and as a welfare case worker.
The judge sees his previous experiences enhancing his current position.
‘The work we do here is social work,’ Henson said. ‘It’s social work with teeth. I went from being a social worker at the Welfare Department in Columbus to being a social worker with a lot of power. And that’s what being a judge is today.’
Having served 33 years on the bench, Henson holds the unique position of seeing how Richland County has changed over the years.
‘When I first came here to Richland County, I saw a few dozen criminal cases a year as a prosecutor,’ the judge said. ‘As a judge, I saw a few hundred cases a year. Very quickly thereafter, it rose to several thousand cases a year.’
Many of the criminal cases the judge rules over involve drugs.
‘I’ve seen a great deal of influx of drugs. A huge number of cases involve the sale, possession, distribution or manufacturing of drugs. We have less educated clientele. At one time, people were getting an eighth or ninth grade education. Today, many thousands of people [that appear in court] aren’t getting any education at all. They’re leaving school without graduating, and they immediately turn to what they can do and that is sell drugs.’
According to Henson, almost all of the violent gun play can be attributed to youth, and some involve drugs.
Henson doesn’t deal with criminal cases with an iron fist, although he is bound by the laws of the land. Despite all of the criminal cases that have passed through his court over the years, Henson has maintained a positive view of humanity.
‘My job is to do the best I can, every day,’ Henson said. ‘And help wherever I can. I do whatever I can do. I don’t worry about what I can’t do anything about. If I did that, I would drive myself to distraction. There are just a lot of things that come at me that I can’t do anything about.
"What I’ve always recognized is that every person who comes in front of me, wherever they’re coming from, they’re just a person with their own problems, level of education, passion and feelings. And I treat everyone [the same]. Until you show me otherwise, I’m going to treat you as best as I can," stated Henson, "I have to be their judge, but I don’t have to be mean about it."
As evidence of the judge’s ability to apply the law with common sense and compassion, he looks for ways to get to the bottom line.
'That’s what we do in drug court. We can’t change people. All we can do is give them a chance. Yes, we give them instruction, counseling, whatever. Kick them in the ass. Put them in jail if necessary. But give them a chance," Henson added.
In several cases over the years, he said he has ordered lawyers and company executives out of the way so that people can settle their issues, and see the other party as a human being.
"Too many cases have negative outcomes," said Henson. "Every once in awhile you see people own up to their foibles and weaknesses and realize that they made a mistake. In this “me me me me” society, very few people admit they make mistakes. My high points are when people realize [their part in the problem] and apologize to the [other party]. Often times, people have attorneys who don’t want to hear that; they tell people to have a stiff upper lip. Sometimes I have to push the attorneys out of the way and get the clients talking to each other."
His main goal with every case is to give people a chance to do the right thing.