POWHATAN – Judges Thomas Stark IV and Theresa J. Royall both stepped into the Powhatan General and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Combined Courts this year as first-time judges ready to learn.
Stark was the first to join the office, starting May 1 as a General District Court judge in the 11th Judicial District. He filled the seat left vacant when Judge Mayo Gravatt retired on Dec. 1, 2018, after six and a half years. Stark left a private law practice to step into the courtroom on the other side of the bench.
About two months later, Royall filled a newly funded position as a judge in the 11th Judicial District’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. At the time, she was serving as the commonwealth’s attorney for Nottoway County, a role she had held since she was elected on Nov. 4, 2012.
The first few weeks in their respective positions were grueling for both as they learned the rhythm of their new roles, they said.
“Before I came on the bench, an experienced judge told me I was going to be tired the first at least month of General District Court. I thought they were full of baloney because I had been running from court to court tying cases in Circuit Court and General District Court,” Stark said with a smile. “But with the mental workload of handling cases and the variety of cases on a day-in, day-out basis, certainly for the first month I was completely exhausted at the end of the day.”
Although they divide their weeks between different courts in the 11th Judicial Circuit, both judges said they have been happy with their decisions to take on this new role in their lives and Powhatan has played a big part of that.
Royall, who didn’t have a background in family law, admitted she was scared she would be too slow to learn her new role and make mistakes. But she, like Stark, talked about the people at all levels who have helped in the transition with their knowledge and support.
“I really love the job already and I am so appreciative of every person who helped me get here. I still pinch myself,” she said.
She said the only fly in the ointment has been the increased workload having her position filled has brought to support staff. Royall currently sits in Nottoway, Petersburg and Powhatan. She sits in Powhatan every Wednesday and the court is also having to increase the number of Tuesday court dates each month. She said she is grateful the General Assembly saw the need to fund the open judgeships because of the increase in caseload, but she also recognizes that action has consequences.
The Powhatan Circuit Court Clerk’s Office has to provide support for the extra court days, just like bailiffs have to be supplied by the sheriff’s office. Seeking more funding for support staff will likely be a big push for the Virginia Supreme Court moving forward in its requests to the General Assembly, Royall said. But the request for more bailiffs has a bigger impact at the local level, and she is hoping that will be seen favorably in the next budget cycle by the board of supervisors.
When he took on the role of judge, Stark came to the position with 30 years of experience in law.
While attending Hampden-Sydney College, Stark said he decided in his senior year to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. He thought it would be an interesting profession where he had the opportunity to learn something new every day, which proved true throughout his career, he said.
Stark attended law school at the University of Richmond, where he graduated in 1989. During and after that time, he also served in the Marine Corps Reserves from 1984 to 1992, which included being activated for Operation Desert Storm and being deployed to Kuwait. He said he enlisted both to help pay for college and pushed by the bombing of a Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon on Oct. 23, 1983, when 241 U.S. service personnel were killed.
In law school, about as far as he got to planning his future was feeling like he wanted to be in the courtroom. But that openness to what came next gave him the “chance to see all sides of the litigation world.”
For the first year after law school, Stark served as a judicial clerk for Justice Asbury Christian Compton at the Virginia Supreme Court. He said it was an awesome experience that let him learn a great deal from some very qualified, competent people.
“I definitely think it helped shape where I am today. I started out my career learning how judges review other judges’ decisions and where they got it right and where they got it wrong,” Stark said, adding that as a judge himself now, “I think I will try to hesitate before making a decision. Having seen the other side and perceiving what were mistakes made by trial judges made in the past, I am trying not to repeat those.”
In 1990, he went to work for Tom Williamson and Carolyn Lavecchia doing primarily plaintiff’s personal injury suits for about seven years. He followed that up with more than 14 years doing insurance defense as in-house counsel at Progressive Insurance Company.
In 2011, Stark, his father, Thomas Stark III, and a fellow Progressive co-worker, Craig Dunkum, started their own practice, Stark, Dunkum and Stark, handling plaintiff’s personal injury, insurance defense, criminal defense, and real estate litigation. Stark joked that Dunkum “abandoned” them to become a judge in the Henrico County General District Court. Stark continued in private practice with his father, but in 2017, he was approached by some attorneys who “encouraged me to consider seeking the appointment because we knew that Judge Gravatt was nearing retirement age.”
After talking to the most important people in his life about the decision – his wife Melinda, his father, and Dunkum – Stark decided to seek the appointment.
“I wanted to be a General District court judge because it is the court where the greatest percentage of the general public will have some interaction with a court, and the judge has the opportunity to influence the general public’s perception of whether a court is fair or unreasonable,” he said. “And I thought that I would be able to – from my experience in multiple aspects of the law that are handled in General District Court – be well suited to listen to the case, be knowledgeable about the law that would be applicable, and give a fair and full hearing to people that appeared in that court.”
Currently, Stark sits in Powhatan on Thursdays and Fridays. He also sits one day each in Nottoway County, Amelia County, and Petersburg. The one aspect of the job that has surprised him is the volume of the cases, he said. In General District Court, the cases come back to back, right after each other.
“It is not a situation where you try a case, take a break and have another case. They come in rapid succession,” he said.
Still, Stark said he has been very happy with his decision to become a judge and has not been terribly surprised about what he has experienced, “because as an attorney, I knew many of the defense attorneys that practiced in the court. I knew the prosecutors, and I knew the court staff. I expected that they would all be professional, helpful and confident, and that has been my experience as a judge.”
Royall took a more circuitous route to get to the bench, not realizing until she was in her late 30s that the law was the right career for her.
After attending Longwood College and studying physics, she became a teacher. She worked for Chesterfield County Public Schools in different sets of time through the years and also worked for Chesapeake City Public Schools, for a combined total of about 14 years. She taught Advanced Placement (AP) Physics, Honors Chemistry, and biology. She also attended medical school for two years but again found it wasn’t the right path.
Royall said she doesn’t exactly remember how she decided to go to law school at the University of Richmond, where she graduated in January 2004. But once she was there, she knew it was where she was supposed to be. She joked that it took her a long time to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I was 39 when I graduated from law school. People say it took a lot of guts. I think it is the opposite. It is so sad for people to stay in a job they hate. It took me a lot of careers to figure out the right one. Even if I was 50, it is never too late to be what you were meant to be,” she said.
The 15 years practicing law that followed again provided a variety of opportunities. After a few months at a private practice right out of law school, she went to work as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Chesapeake in July 2004 for two years, followed by almost a year in the same role in Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Royall said her decision to work as an associate attorney for Paullin Law Firm from late 2007 to late 2012 was driven by the fact she was a divorced single mom raising two sons and needed a better salary. At the same time, she said her time as a defense attorney now greatly helps her as a judge.
“When you have done defense work for awhile, you realize each case is individual and every defendant is a different person,” she said. “Before I was a defense lawyer, I thought fair was treating every defendant the same. When I became a defense attorney, I realized fair is fair to that person in those circumstances and no person is the same.”
Royall ran and won the election for the commonwealth’s attorney seat in Nottoway in November 2012, where she was until earlier this year. Like Stark, it was the suggestion from other attorneys about seeking a judgeship that really started the wheels turning for her.
“I don’t think there are many attorneys who would say I have never thought about it, but you don’t voice it yourself,” she said.
Initially, Royall sought the seat Gravatt had left vacant. But several people kept pushing her toward Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, saying her background as a teacher, personality, love of children, and personal experiences would make her a good fit for that role.
Royall said she had never practiced family law or done custody or visitation cases, which is the majority of what she does now. She had some insight into the cycle of domestic violence and the impact on children involved in these situations, but said it has still been a huge learning curve.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover the emotional weight of some of the cases she hears. She said her husband, Tony, who is a Virginia State Police special agent, was concerned when she took the job because he knew it would take an emotional toll.
“And it has. There are days I go home and can’t believe what people do to their children,” she said with a shake of her head. “I knew that and don’t think that is ever going to get any easier. But what I have learned in the last 11 months or so is I do feel like I am the right person to be making those decisions because I do care – really care – and I have seen a lot of judges who don’t.
“Someone is going to make those hard decisions and I feel like it should be someone who really cares. I am willing to be that person,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.