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Election 2014: Armstrong’s exit draws criticism

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Donnell, RoBards seek job as judge’s moves questioned

By Lisa King and Todd Martin

Longtime District Court Judge Linda Armstrong surprisingly withdrew late Tuesday as a candidate for re-election, and the process she used to declare that has come under scrutiny.

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Armstrong, who since 1998 has sat the bench in District 53 Division 1, cited health and personal reasons for deciding to withdraw her name as a candidate in the 2014 election, a decision she said she made on Sunday evening.

But on Monday, during a meeting of the Shelby County bar association, Armstrong made no announcement to area lawyers that she would not run.

Late Tuesday, just before the 4 p.m. deadline to file for the election, Armstrong withdrew from the race as her son-in-law J.R. RoBards filed to enter it.

Shelby County Commonwealth Attorney Laura Donnell also filed late Tuesday, and she said she was displeased with Armstrong’s decision to withdraw at the last moment and questioned the integrity of the move.

“An opportunity arose that has allowed me to seek the office of District Judge, Division 1, and give the voters a choice, as opposed to Judge Armstrong’s attempt to orchestrate the outcome of the election and ensure her son-in-law the office by circumventing the democratic process,” Donnell said in a statement to The Sentinel-News.

Armstrong denies that accusation. “In truth, I had considered retiring before and talked to some people, including my son-in-law, J.R. RoBards, about that, but I did not make that decision definitely until this past weekend,” she wrote in an E-mail.”

Armstrong said a recent diagnosis, although not life-threatening, will impact her ability to perform her duties as judge. That illness, along with some family issues, is what caused her to step away. She said she’s not sure if she will finish the end of her term, which ends when a new judge takes office.

“I have some health issues, and I’ve got three beautiful children that I would like to spend more time with,” she said. “Also, my mother is going to be ninety years old this year.”

“Over the weekend, my husband and I talked about it and decided this is the best thing for me, to retire and concentrate on me for a while.

“I told my family Sunday that I had made the decision, and so he [RoBards] and my daughter talked about it and decided that, since I wasn’t going to be running, he would take that opportunity to run himself.”

RoBards did not return a call from The Sentinel-News by press time seeking comment on his decision to file.

But Nathan Riggs, president of the bar association in Shelby, said he’s curious why others were not given the same opportunity that Armstrong gave RoBards when she declined to publicly announce her intentions not to run.

“The timing on this is very unfortunate, and I’m certain there are other attorneys in Shelby County that would like to have filed to run for the office or at least been given the opportunity to consider it,” he said. “The timing of the decision made that very difficult.”

Riggs added that he’s sure several attorneys in Spencer and Anderson counties, which also are  served by District 53, would like to have been alerted of the decision as well to consider running.

Donnell, who as been a part of the Shelby County’s commonwealth attorney’s office for the past 15 years including serving at the commonwealth attorney since 2008 – to which she was re-elected without opposition in 2012 – said she’s ready to move forward with her campaign.

“Being a judge is an everyday challenge but more importantly an everyday honor to serve our communities,” Donnell said. “Two of the most important qualities of a judge are to be honest and fair in everything that you do.

“A judge is an integral part of the legal system and the person who is fortunate enough to serve should be experienced and committed to the law as well as our communities.

“I have dedicated the last fifteen years of my twenty-one years of practice to representing the citizens of Anderson, Shelby and Spencer Counties and I have the knowledge, experience and moral integrity to honorably serve.”