Friday, March 12, 2004

Judge won't pursue state post



By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWPORT - Campbell District Judge Greg Popovich will not seek the gubernatorial appointment to the bench of a higher state court.

But Popovich, 53, a district judge since 1994, said Thursday he would run for Campbell County Circuit judge in November.

"Going for the appointment isn't right for me at this time," Popovich said. "But I do want to be a circuit judge and I will run in the fall."

Popovich's decision is likely to mean that Fort Thomas lawyer Steve Franzen will be appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the circuit court vacancy.

Franzen is believed to be the only Campbell County lawyer who has applied for the appointment to the seat of retiring Circuit Judge William Wehr. Fletcher is expected to fill the vacancy in April or May.

Franzen said he would also run for the seat even if he were not appointed, so it appears that he and Popovich will run against each other in the fall.

Popovich gave several reasons for not seeking the appointment, including:

• He said he does not want to leave Campbell District Court with just one judge, Karen Thomas.

"I'll handle up to 10,000 cases a year," Popovich said. "If I were to get the appointment it would be a few months before someone else was appointed. Judge Thomas is a hard worker and a great judge, but even she can't handle that many cases. Leaving now just wouldn't be the responsible thing to do."

• Wehr is retiring, but he will go on "senior status," meaning he will spend the next five years still handling some cases before completely retiring. Popovich said because Wehr still has several cases before him in Campbell County he sees the appointment as basically a "caretaker's" position until a judge is elected in the fall.

• If Popovich were to take the appointment and lose in the fall, he has to give up his seat on the bench. Because November's election is a special election to fill out the last two years of Wehr's six-year-term Popovich can remain a district judge and still run for the circuit judge.

"I'll be honest, job security is an issue here," he said.

Franzen, 48, said he is "giving up a lot" professionally in his decision to seek the appointment.

"But I want the job bad enough that I'm willing to take the risk of giving up my practice and seeking the appointment as well as running in the election," Franzen said.

In separate interviews Franzen and Popovich - who live not far from each other in Fort Thomas - previewed the kind of race they will run.

Franzen said his 22 years as a lawyer has included work as a criminal prosecutor, a civil litigator, a criminal defense attorney and a lawyer for three Campbell County cities - Crestview, Newport and presently Highland Heights.

"What I have done in my career is the perfect training ground for the job because nobody is doing to walk into that courtroom and come up with something that I haven't experienced," Franzen said.

Popovich will run on his experience as a district court judge.

"I've probably handled 80,000 to 100,000 cases in my career," he said.

But Franzen said the difference between circuit court and district court is "night and day."

District court handles misdemeanors and civil cases under $4,000. Circuit court handles civil cases over $4,000 and felonies.

"I don't mean to belittle anything that happens in district court, but there's no comparison with circuit court," Franzen said.

Popovich disagreed, saying district court judges handle the same type of cases as circuit judges.

"It's just that in circuit court, the amount of money is more, but it's still about money," he said. "And there might be more drugs in a case that would move it to circuit court, but it's still a drug case in district court. The amount of drugs involved is what makes the difference, and that's the only difference there is."

Other candidates could run in November. But it's unlikely anyone will enter a race that is likely to feature two sitting judges, Popovich on the district bench and, assuming he gets the appointment, Franzen in circuit court.

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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