Mother, daughter, grandmother, “mountain girl” and judge.
For nearly 30 years, those are the hats that Magisterial District Judge Wendy Dennis has worn.
After three decades of arraignments, preliminary hearings, paperwork, heartaches and triumphs, Dennis of Wharton Township is ready for the next chapter in her life.
“It’s been a long time. I’m humbled that I’ve had the opportunity to serve the people, and by God’s grace I’ve been able to overcome many challenges associated with being a judge,” said Dennis. “It’s just time now. It’s been long enough.”
Dennis’ career as magisterial district judge began in 1987 when she ran for the office, which at the time was still in Farmington by the post office. She had been immersed in the court system, though, since 1975 when she started right out of high school as a secretary for then judge Lila VanSickle.
“I’ve always been intrigued with the judicial system,” Dennis said.
She served the mountain community for nearly 20 years before the state ordered the county to reduce the number of districts. The workload and coverage areas of 13 districts were spread out between the remaining seven as the others were condensed and closed. Dennis’ area and that of Deberah Kula, the magistrate who covered the North Union Township area, were combined. The women both ran for the post, and Dennis won.
The Farmington office closed in 2005, and Dennis’ office moved to its new location in North Union Township. Her exposure to the system that covered the mountain communities of Henry Clay, Wharton and Stewart townships, in addition to the highly populated North Union Township, gave her a “wellrounded view of things that occurred throughout the years,” she said.
“Every day was a new learning experience,” Dennis added. “There are very serious decisions that have to be made, and one has to assume that you make the correct one.”
Dennis said her trick over the years has been to be fair and listen before making a decision.
“My decisions vastly impact people’s lives and the decisions they’ll make,” she said.
Her love for the judicial system will carry on in what she hopes is the next chapter of her life.
“I plan on applying for senior judge (status) to not completely exclude myself from it because I like the work,” Dennis said.
Day to day
There’s no such thing as an average day at the office for Dennis, or for any magistrate, really.
Days begin early with paperwork and hearing preparation while a steady stream of people come to the office to make payments, ask questions and go through legal proceedings.
“Each person is so different, with different problems and issues. You just try to listen and deal with them and remain calm,” she said. “It’s important to take the time with each one so that they feel as though they have their time and receive justice from the court.”
“It’s very busy. Sometimes people are angry coming in, so we try to deescalate the anger and be calm,” she added. “It helps to sit down, explain it and listen to them.”
Over the years, Dennis has picked up on little things, like keeping victims separated from suspects during the hearings so they’re not further traumatized.
“If it’s a young child, we might give them a coloring book or a snack to fill their time and help them not be fearful. It helps,” she said.
Dennis also contributed the office’s efficiency to her “very dependable, reliable staff throughout the years, including Roberta, Joanne and Lois.”
“I will miss them,” she said.
“Crime has definitely went through the roof,” Dennis said. “There’s more drug issues, more juvenile issues. There’s more juveniles using drugs and committing very serious crimes like assault.”
“That’s what hurts so much. The young people that are getting involved with drugs and pursuing the wrong avenues,” she added.
It’s been within the past 10 years that the crime has increased, she said, even touching the quiet mountain communities that she calls home.
“Crime, unfortunately, is worse in the mountains, too. Most of it is drugs. They overtake people,” she said. “They need to get help, get to the right programs so they know it’s wrong behavior. There’s a lot of caring people out there willing to help them.”
Dennis said the job has come with its fair share of heartaches and cases that stick with you. The most traumatizing cases are those involving young children, she said.
“I have to separate my feelings from what I’m required to do. It’s very difficult,” Dennis said.
The good outweighs the bad, though, particularly when a positive impact has been made on someone’s life.
“You can’t help everyone. You try though. It’s rewarding when you know you can help someone,” she said.
“When juveniles come back to me after having successfully completed what they had to do — drug treatment, jail time, whatnot — and have become productive citizens,” Dennis said, “It’s uplifting. It’s rewarding.”
Overall, Dennis said the position has changed her, but for the better.
“It’s made me more aware of issues that everyone faces,” she said. “Every single person is special in their own way. We just have to listen and try to help that person the best you can.”
“It’s surreal, and sad. But it’s time to move on,” she added. “I’ve met and worked with so many wonderful, great people.”
Now, she looks forward to spending more time with her family, particularly her grandchildren as they play baseball and soccer.
“My family has sacrificed a lot, and have been great, throughout the years. The job is so demanding of my time,” Dennis added.
Thirty years ago, Dennis didn’t imagine herself having a career as a magistrate. But it’s a profession she grew to love.
“It’s evolved into something great, and I’ve been able to help a lot of people,” Dennis said. ”And I hope to continue to do so.”