By Faith E. Pinho

Anita Filson started playing judge when she was six years old. Sixty years later, the same gavel that sentenced childhood playmates to punishments maintains order in the Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

Judge Anita Filson on the bench. (Photo by Faith Pinho)

“As I was growing up, I’d get my cousin and my little sister and I’d do, ‘Order in the court!’” said Filson, presiding judge of Virginia’s 25th judicial circuit court, holding the wooden gavel that her cabinetmaker grandfather had carved when she was a little girl.

Filson’s family gave her the gavel when she was sworn in as judge for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in 2001. A year and a half ago, Filson took it with her when she went upstairs to the third-floor Rockbridge County Circuit courtroom. The gavel has been with Filson through thousands of cases, from contested traffic ticket hearings to child sex abuse trials.

“The stories that people have to tell are incredibly heartbreaking sometimes,” Filson said. “And amusing other times, and human. You see the human condition in court and it’s not always pretty.”

The road to court

The Roanoke native moved to Lexington at age 16, graduated high school and soon married. Her first job was as a secretary in the library of Washington and Lee University’s law school.

From there, she became a receptionist at Spencer & Taylor, a private Lexington law firm. She had no intention of pursuing law until one of the partners, Tommy Spencer, suggested it.

“My boss … came to me and said, ‘I’m going to be looking for a law partner shortly. Do you have any interest in going to law school?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure, but I’ve only got one year of college,’” Filson remembered with a laugh.

It was her “old school” sense of right and wrong that impressed him, Spencer said. He recalled spending hours at the firm talking about philosophy with Filson. He soon gave her paralegal work in addition to her administrative duties.

“She just was a good, honest human being that wanted to do things the right way and I respected that,” said Spencer, who is now retired. “I guess I wanted to help her somewhat, but I was pretty selfish myself and thought it would be good for our community and my firm if she got a law degree.”

Filson finished her bachelor’s degree by taking classes in the evening at Mary Baldwin University, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1983. Filson then went to law school at Washington and Lee University. When Filson graduated in 1986, Spencer had a job waiting for her—at the newly named Spencer and Filson law firm.

Filson’s inspiration. (Photo by Faith Pinho)

Filson practiced a variety of types of law with Spencer and in her own private practice for almost 15 years. She and Spencer separated their practices when she took on extra responsibilities. In the early 1990s, local judges appointed her as commissioner of accounts and as a substitute judge.

In 2001, Filson made history when the General Assembly appointed her as the first female judge in Rockbridge County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

“I’m proud to be the first one, but I don’t know that makes me any more special than anybody else,” she said. “We all work hard, we all do the best we can and we try to handle our cases with restraint and dignity and courtesy.”

Filson earned the honor of first female judge in the 25th judicial district when she moved to the circuit court last year.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias, who has prosecuted cases in front of Filson for 10 years, said the legislature could not have made a better choice for presiding judge of the Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

“She’s a person who is respected because she shows tremendous respect,” he said, “a person who is liked because she is also very likeable and likes people. … I think the world of her. She’s delightful.”

From families to felonies

Last year, Filson was considering retirement. But then she learned that Circuit Court Judge Michael Irvine had decided to retire, and she instead set out to make a career change.

She applied for the opening, beating out the Botetourt County commonwealth’s attorney and Lexington’s General District Court judge for the appointment.

Her move to the Rockbridge Circuit Court marked a transition from the rigor of the juvenile courts, where Filson said the caseloads were too numerous and resources too few.

“I didn’t like the fact that I had to be so concerned about working my cases through,” Filson said. “I wanted to hear my cases come to a resolution. And the caseload is so heavy that you just can’t do that the way you’d like to.”

While she welcomed the circuit court’s more manageable schedule, Filson said her heart is still in the juvenile court.

“Honestly, I feel it is the most important court of any courts,” Filson said. “I mean we can all make rulings on money issues and property issues, but when you’re talking about dealing with people’s children and their relationships with their children, that hits about as hard as anything.”

Her move to the circuit court was welcomed by public defender Teresa Harris, who has known Filson for 23 years. Harris said Filson’s “nurturing” demeanor differed from her predecessor’s “clinical” approach to judging.

“Judge Filson made it an easy transition,” Harris said. “We used to say, you know, when they ascend to the bench, they get the ‘black dress disease.’ … There’s some awkward times. But she never got that way.”

Fair and square

During a recent hearing, James Vest Jr., a father of two girls, told Filson that he filed an appeal in his custody case because he was unhappy with the ruling of the lower court judge, who “was kind of a snot to me.”

Filson nodded.

“I’m here, I will do this for you, but I don’t know you. I don’t know your kids,” said Filson, repeating lines she frequently used with parents in juvenile cases. “I don’t know how you celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving, or if you celebrate those holidays. Can’t you really do this better than I can?”

The judge peppered Vest, his estranged wife and her lawyer with questions, drawing out the details of the dispute before sending Vest, who was initially representing himself, to a nearby conference room to speak with an attorney.

“I love her to death,” Vest said of Filson. “She’s very kind and compassionate.”

Harris said Vest’s experience is not unusual.

“The way she approaches defendants—and really everybody in the courtroom—is with a fair amount of respect. Just because they’re in that position and they’re a defendant, she does not treat them with any disrespect,” Harris said. “She’s—in very many respects–compassionate about the situations that they find themselves in. So my clients, pretty routinely, have appreciated her genteelness.”

‘Stern’ but ‘easygoing’

With her glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, Filson, the mother of two, listens intently to the people who stand below the judge’s dais.

Filson rarely raises her voice in the courtroom. But when she speaks, everyone listens. Her questions are pointed and her statements clear.

Sandy Hartley, Filson’s judicial assistant, said the judge presents a “stern” but “easygoing” demeanor on the bench. Hartley said she hasn’t seen anyone walk out of the courtroom looking mad, in Lexington, or in the Buena Vista Circuit Court, where Filson sits twice a month.

“She can send somebody away for 30 years and she’ll say, ‘Now when you get out, you need to make new friends.’ And so she’s so stern, but they end up loving her,” Hartley said. “They’ll thank her for sending them to prison.”

In one case in January, Tali Perron was charged with possession of drugs. Filson said Perron’s charges could be dismissed if she successfully met the conditions of probation. The defendant failed, and was arrested and put in jail for two weeks.

Once she was released, Hartley said, the woman admitted herself into rehab, began working a regular job and started counseling others.

Hartley said she and Judge Filson were “shocked” at the visible change in Perron when she returned to the courtroom in July for a review of her probation.

“She looked so totally different. She looked really good,” Hartley said. “As she was getting ready to walk out of the court, she turned around and looked at Judge Filson and said, ‘Judge, I just want to tell you that you are awesome. You are an awesome judge.’”

Five months later, Perron said she feels the same way.

“Judge Filson is an amazing [j]udge,” Perron said in a Facebook message. “She sees the person and not just the charge.”

Hartley credits Perron’s change to the encouragement she received from Filson during the sentencing hearing.

“[Filson] is always like … ‘I believe in you, I know you will do the right thing. I know you can do it.’ … And she’ll really put that belief into you,” Hartley said.

Filson’s principles of judging come from Socrates and his definition of a good judge. Nestled between a box of mints and her gavel, a yellow index card taped to her desk in the courtroom reads, “1) To hear courteously 2) Answer wisely 3) Consider soberly 4) Decide impartially.”

“This is what I look at every day when I sit down,” Filson said. “And that really guides me in the way I try to respond to people, the way I try to handle every case in front of me and the way I try to conduct myself. … That’s kind of what my philosophy is, me and Socrates.”

Published Dec. 13, 2017