The August primary for the 20th circuit court judge pits the current Division 1 presiding judge against a former circuit judge.
Judge Gael D. Wood is seeking re-election to his post. He has nearly completed his second six-year term.
Wood’s opponent is Cynthia Eckelkamp who served as a circuit judge from 2004 through 2010 when she lost a re-election bid to Judge Ike Lamke.
The circuit includes Franklin, Gasconade and Osage counties.
Eckelkamp, 62, says she is the only candidate who would be able to finish the six-year term before having to choose between retirement and receiving a state pension.
According to state law, a judge must retire at age 70 or would relinquish his or her state pension. Wood is 64, and would turn 70 before his term would end if elected.
Eckelkamp noted that the governor would appoint a replacement to complete the remaining months of Wood’s term.
“Many people feel we should elect judges,” she said.
However, Wood said he is looking into changing the law that requires judges to retire by age 70 to receive pension, which he says would save the state money.
He explained that retaining a judge past the age of 70 would prevent the state from paying a new judge, including paying into pensions, as well as paying the retiring judge’s pension.
“It would save the taxpayers a lot of money, and I think it can be done,” said Wood.
He added that his qualifications and experience make him a better choice for the position regardless if he must retire early.
“Only God knows how long anyone can continue to work,” he said. “I firmly believe that it is better to have the best candidate for five years instead of a less qualified candidate for six years.”
Eckelkamp said she does not take campaign contributions from attorneys.
“I do not and have not taken donations from attorneys,” she said. “The playing field in my courtroom is level and no attorney can buy any influence.”
Wood explained that donations to his campaign are handled by his campaign manager and he is not made aware of who donates what amount.
“I have nothing but a fair courtroom,” said Wood. “I pride myself on that a litigant and lawyer knows when they are in my courtroom they get fair treatment from a knowledgeable judge.”
The Missourian sat down with each candidate to hear their platforms.
Born and raised in Villa Ridge, Eckelkamp was elected Division 6 associate circuit judge in 2002. She won election in 2004 as Division 2 circuit judge.
She is a 1967 graduate of Washington High School, a 1970 graduate of Vassar College and a 1977 graduate of the Washington University School of Law. She also has a master’s degree in education from University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eckelkamp has served as a high school teacher, a law school teacher, a mediator, and a clerk for the Missouri Court of Appeals. She also is state senior judge which makes her available to hear cases if a judge is not available.
“Many people wanted me to run again,” Eckelkamp said. “I prayed about it and talked to my family and friends.”
“I could walk in on the first day and begin the job immediately,” she added.
Eckelkamp began her solo practice in Union in 1989 and handles a wide variety of legal matters including civil, criminal, domestic and probate matters prior to running for associate judge. As a judge she could not operate the practice, but has resumed the work.
“Now, my main work is estate work,” she said. Sometimes people like someone to come to their home — I try to be willing to do that.”
She noted that her years as a schoolteacher give her a unique quality as a judge.
“I believe schoolteachers have the education and training valuable for handling family law cases,” Eckelkamp said.
She said those traits include interpersonal communication and child development skills.
“That’s really important for a child,” she said. “I come to the bench with much more of that type of experience than any other judge.”
Her work as a mediator also makes Eckelkamp qualified for the position, she said.
“Trained mediators are better to help people come to a resolution of a problem,” she said.
She lives outside of Washington with her husband, Terry Witthaus. They have three children.
Eckelkamp said she is a pro Second Amendment and pro-life conservative. She is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Washington. She has been a 4-H leader for more than 20 years and has taught Sunday school for over 20 years.
“I keep my hand in working with young people and teaching,” she said.
Eckelkamp added that she is “fair, impartial, honest and hardworking.”
“I absolutely believe that parties want to have their day in court in some reasonable timely fashion,” she said. “I have always been interested in moving cases along.”
Eckelkamp further explained that she would contact attorneys to ensure that they are prepared for upcoming court dates.
“I make an effort to live a Christian moral life, so people can feel very good about the behavior of the judge as an example for the community,” she said.
Wood and his wife Mary live in Washington. They have one daughter.
He is a graduate of Washington High School, where he was the valedictorian of his class. He graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in mathematics. He later graduated in the top 10 percent of his class from law school from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Wood began practicing law in Washington in 1975 at a firm in which he eventually became a partner. He had served as municipal judge for both the cities of Washington and Owensville.
Wood left the practice Jan. 1 2001, when he was elected to his current position. He ran unopposed in his first re-election bid in 2006.
His experience makes him the most qualified to be judge again, according to Wood.
“I believe that the people of this circuit deserve a qualified and highly experienced person in the job,” he said. “It is an extremely important job and I think my record of service and level of professionalism I have brought to office speaks for itself.
“I intend to serve as long as the voters and the law permit me to serve,” Wood added.
His experience includes seeing six first-degree murder trials to verdict, as well as a complex three-week civil trial that involved millions of dollars.
He also has served by special appointment to the state supreme and appeals courts.
Wood is one of 11 Missouri judges who has been selected to train in the 2010 course of the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center.
That program is funded by the Department of Justice to make scientific and technological resources available to judges throughout the country.
Wood also has been elected by his peers to serve as the presiding judge every two years.
“That job comes with a tremendous responsibility over the work of a trial judge,” he said.
Job duties include the general administrative control of the circuit courts, including budgeting, as well as supervising the juvenile office, and the drug court administration.
Wood also allocates the workload of the other circuit judges, and the associate circuit court judges.
“It takes a tremendous amount of time to assume those responsibilities but still carry a trial load,” he said.
Wood also has been instrumental in the creation of the Franklin County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and the DWI and drug court.
Under Wood, there has been a “on call judge” program implemented for adult abuse cases during the weekends and holidays.
He also has instituted the Missouri Augmented Probation Supervision (MAPS) which closely supervises those on probation with “immediate consequences for violators.”
Wood is also a member of the Circuit Judge Association Judicial Resource Allocation Task Force.
“The job of circuit judge is extremely important. We make decisions that have life-altering consequences, sometimes even life-or-death consequences,” said Wood. “The decision of who to vote for should be based solely upon who is the most qualified and experienced candidate before the voters now, not something that might, or might not, happen along partisan lines more than five years from now.”