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Osborn looks back at 18 years on local bench

South Boston News
Osborn
SoVaNow.com / January 02, 2019
The sign on Mecklenburg Circuit Judge Leslie Osborn’s old office could well read, “Gone Fishing.” After 18 years on the bench, Osborn has retired. He said he plans to spend his time relaxing with his new rod and reel and boat.

His last official day on the job was Dec. 31.

Osborn, however, may have to put off his date with the fish for a few months. After a 93-day waiting period, a requirement under the Affordable Care Act, Osborn said he expects to return to the bench as a presiding — albeit officially retired — judge for about three months between April and July to fill in until a new judge is appointed in his place.

Succeeding him as presiding judge in the 10th Judicial Circuit is Kimberly S. White, who presides in Halifax County. Circuit Judge S. Anderson Nelson will take over for Osborn in Mecklenburg and Lunenburg county courts, assuming responsibility for the criminal docket. Nelson already hears civil cases in Mecklenburg County.

Looking back at his judicial tenure, Osborn said he has “no regrets” after 18 years though he admits it was never his life’s dream to become a judge. He enjoyed being a trial attorney and his domestic relations practice. That said, Osborn admits the best part of being a judge is not having to work weekends and holidays or receiving late night or weekend calls from distraught clients.

There was a brief period when Osborn continued to work weekends even after his judicial appointment. That was for a period of about three or four years, the judge explained, when the 10th Circuit did not have enough judges to cover the caseload.

Osborn said he knew from an early age he wanted to be a lawyer. It was while taking a speech class in eighth grade that he first saw the power of persuasive arguments. His teacher made the students practice cross-examination techniques on fellow students. Osborn was matched up against the captain of the football team. “I made him cry,” Osborn recalled, and remembers thinking to himself: “I like this.”

Osborn quickly added that his enjoyment came not from making the football captain cry, but from the realization that his words could evoke such strong emotions.

Osborn went on to captain the debate team in high school before being recruited to University of Richmond for their debate team. After majoring in Political Science and Speech Communications, he enrolled in the University’s T. C. Williams Law School and spent part of his time studying at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

Unlike most students, he eschewed the traditional trappings of law school, foregoing honors such as Law Review, choosing to work full-time instead. Osborn said he hated law school but loved practicing law. He ran the “night crew” at the law firm of Allen & Allen while in law school and spent a summer interning for Mecklenburg County Commonwealth’s Attorney Frank Harris.

Once out of school, he threw himself into his work, often spending 75 hours per week in his broad-based trial practice. “I tried everything from capital crimes to juvenile and misdemeanor cases,” he said. By then he was working for Harris & Matthews, having opened their Kenbridge office.

After about 20 years he decided to focus his practice on domestic relations work. He still recalls some of the more unique moments from that practice — the wife who took and refused to return her husband’s false teeth during a divorce, writing visitation orders for dogs and cats as part of divorce settlements, and the time he spent $175 to have an appraisal done on a couple’s collection of Beanie Babies.

“They thought it was going to fund their children’s college. They weren’t worth the $175.”

Osborn said he was never politically inclined. He did run for Commonwealth’s Attorney once against Robert Clement in Lunenburg County. Clement won in a landslide. And Osborn did a brief stint on town council in Kenbridge before being named town attorney. But in 1999 a vacancy opened up on the Circuit Court. It was assumed, Osborn said, that the existing juvenile and domestic relations court judge would move up. Members of the bar were lining up for the vacancy, but several candidates did not even practice in that court. By then, most of Osborn’s practice was in the family court.

With the support of former South Hill Mayor Earl Horne and the late Frank Harris — the former Commonwealth’s Attorney who Osborn says was akin to a second father — Osborn went to see state Sen. Frank Ruff about appointing him to fill the Juvenile and Domestic Relations vacancy. Ruff encouraged Osborn to try for seat on the Circuit Court instead. He succeeded: in 2000, Osborn became the newest member of the 10th Judicial Circuit.

Much has changed during Osborn’s 18 years on the bench. In his first year serving as judge, he oversaw more than 40 trials. Today, he said there are maybe 15 or fewer trials per year. He attributes that to Gov. George Allen’s truth-in-sentencing law. Under the old system, for every year a criminal was sentenced, he or she served only two months and 10 days. Now a person sentenced to a year in prison will serve a year in prison. Osborn said most defendants don’t understand the sentencing guidelines and don’t want to take a chance that a jury will impose a long sentence, so they plead.

There has also been a sharp increase in the number of child molestation cases; he estimates he sees at least 30-40 per year now. Osborn called the sex with children cases “the worst part of the job.”

Despite the rise of political attacks on judges, Osborn said he’s been lucky not to have any such experience. Only once in his 18 years did he receive a call from a legislator — and that was to ask why a certain case had not been resolved. The legislator was told that the lawyers had not filed their briefs, and that was the end of the conversation.

Of the eight counties that make up the 10th Circuit — Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Prince Edward — Osborn said Mecklenburg County has the heaviest docket. Though the number of civil cases has remained flat, the number of criminal cases has grown. He averages approximately 2,500 charges per year and sees around 1,000 defendants each year — often the same person more than once.

Still, Osborn said he never gets frustrated by or tired of seeing them: “I believe in treating every person with respect. When you do, you have no problems with unruliness.”

He has high praise for the lawyers who regularly practice before him despite their dwindling numbers. In 2000 there were 125 lawyers in private practice in Southside Virginia. Today that number is down to 83. Because of their caliber, he said he never lost sleep over a decision he’s made, no matter how tough it was to make.

He firmly believes it’s important to let the lawyers try the case and not substitute his judgment or his perception of the case. Circuit Court is different from General District where you often don’t see lawyers representing the people in front of you. In General District Court, it falls to the judge to advance the case, according to Osborn.

He also praises the board of supervisors who worked with him, the clerk of court, the commonwealth’s attorney and others when renovating the courthouse back in 2010 and 2011. “You could tell they wanted to get it right.”

Asked if the 10th Circuit needs more judges, Osborn says “no.” Studies suggest the eight counties should have 4.3 judges. There are currently four — Nelson, White, and Judge Donald Blessing and Osborn or his replacement. Thanks to technology, Osborn said judges can handle a larger caseload and that’s why he does not see the need for an additional judge beyond the one who will replace him.

How does Osborn wish to be remembered once he is no longer on the bench? He answers, “I was a hard worker and tried to be fair.” He’s not ready to walk away from the law just yet. Osborn — who is also a trained mediator — hopes to work with domestic relations mediation matters. “I think that’s one place you can really make a difference, do some good, especially in custody and visitation matters.”

Hearing that, it just might be that the fish in Buggs Island Lake will not be seeing amateur angler Leslie Osborn anytime soon.

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