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Morgan Armstrong retires after 16 years on the bench
R. Morgan Armstrong, who retired Dec. 31 after 16 years as a judge, is seen above in the Henry County General District courtroom at the Henry County Courthouse. Armstrong said he looks forward to filling in as a substitute judge in the future. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
R. Morgan Armstrong sees judges as problem-solvers, not punishers.
"That's the purpose of a judge: We solve problems," said Armstrong, who retired Dec. 31 from his position as chief judge in the 21st Judicial Circuit's general district courts. The circuit includes Henry and Patrick counties and Martinsville. He has been on the bench for 16 years.
The problems before a judge may be civil or criminal, from a landlord who can't get his tenant to pay the rent to a homeowner whose property has been stolen to murder, Armstrong said. Whatever it is that brings people to court, it is something they need a third party to address.
"Basically the law is the study of life and how to solve problems that people have," said Armstrong, 63. "It's always interesting, and sometimes it's difficult to know how to solve problems, but it's always an interesting challenge."�
Armstrong, who spent nine years as a prosecutor in the Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and 15 years in private practice before he became a judge in 1995, said his experience on both sides of the courtroom helped prepare him to take the bench.
"By the time I became a judge, I had done about everything, so I knew what to expect," he said. But knowing what to expect doesn't mean you won't be thrown a curveball.
Work as a judge "is sort of like going in for an oral exam every day, because you never know what the attorneys are going to come up with in terms of trial strategy," he said. "You can't get complacent."�
Judges must keep up with changes in the laws passed by the General Assembly and with precedents set by other courts, he said. But although laws change, he said most of the changes aren't dramatic.
Although many things remain consistent, Armstrong has seen changes during his years on the bench. The biggest one, he said, has been the area's declining economy.
The loss of textile and furniture manufacturers that once thrived here "has really changed the dynamics of the county and has affected the judicial system," he said. Part of that change is that there is "more of an overload of cases that are tough and heartrending because the people are suffering," he said.
"At the same time, because of the economy, the state has downsized somewhat in resources in areas of mental health, juvenile resources, medical resources - everything is in tighter supply now, and that creates challenges for the courts."�
In the last five to 10 years, Armstrong said he has seen more cases of people stealing items "you wouldn't normally think they would want to steal," such as copper gutters off churches and kettles that local civic groups use to make apple butter, all "stolen, smashed and sold for the value of the copper," he said.
Seeing charitable groups that work to help the community in his courtroom as crime victims is sad, Armstrong said, and it also demonstrates "the desperation of some of the folks in the community."�
But poverty is not an excuse for breaking the law, he added.
"You can't excuse it. It's wrong; it's a crime," he said. "But it does affect how you look at the changes in the community at large."�
Another change Armstrong has seen during the last decade is a decrease in the caseload in Henry County General District Court. He thinks that may be related to cuts in the number of state troopers working in the area.
"If you don't have troopers working the roads, you don't have cases written," he said. "... From my end, when I see a full docket and then I see those cases drop, it worries me because I'm not certain that the crime isn't out there."�
Armstrong's brother, Ward Armstrong, who served 19 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, recently said the General Assembly has not yet committed to funding a judge to fill his brother's place next year. Morgan Armstrong said he believes leaving the spot vacant would lead to a backup of cases and delays in the time it takes legal matters to be resolved.
Substitute judges have been scheduled to fill in for the months of January, February and March, when the General Assembly will be in session, with the hope that lawmakers will make a decision on the judgeship by the time the session ends. As a retired judge, Armstrong himself will be one of those substitute judges, a role he said he is looking forward to.
"It's not like just retiring and walking out the door and you can't ever come back," he said. "I get to come back and do what I love to do occasionally, but I have the freedom to enjoy retirement (as well). So it's the best of both worlds."�
When he isn't filling his old seat in the courtroom, Armstrong likely will be spending time on the ski slopes. A member of the National Ski Patrol, he has served as a trainer for ski patrollers and as division director for all ski patrols in the Southeast.
Although he has dedicated his weekends to the ski patrol for years, Armstrong, also an emergency medical technician, said retirement will give him more opportunities to hit the slopes for fun.
He also is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Jo Ann. But packing up his office in the Henry County Courthouse and presiding over his last court hearing as chief judge were bittersweet experiences, he said.
"It's kind of both sad and happy ... it's a little hard to walk away from," Armstrong said.
"But I think I'll get over it as soon as the slopes open," he added with a laugh.