LEXINGTON — Virginia judges ask defendants about 30 questions before they plead guilty to a crime.
Do you fully understand the charges against you?
Are you entering this guilty plea freely and voluntarily?
Are you entirely satisfied with the services of your lawyer?
But Circuit Court Judge Anita Filson always adds another: Is there anything you would like to say to the court at this time?
“I think it’s important for people to feel like they’ve been heard,” Filson said. “I don’t care what you’ve done. If you don’t feel like you have had a chance to explain, you aren’t going to be invested in the decision the judge makes.”
Filson is known for being genuine in the courtroom. She looks directly at the defendant as she asks each question clearly and slowly. That brief connection, she said, makes a defendant’s sentence just a little more bearable.
“I know there are judges that can do guilty pleas in 10 minutes,” she said. “I’m not one of them.”
Filson, 67, became the first female judge in the 25th Judicial District when the legislature elected her to the juvenile and domestic relations court bench in 2001. Fifteen years later, she became the first female presiding circuit court judge in the district, which extends as far north as Augusta County and as far south as Craig County.
But in late March, Filson announced it was time for her to step off the bench. Monday marks the first day of her retirement. Circuit Court Judge Ed Stein, who was elected by the General Assembly earlier this year, will take over Filson’s duties until a permanent replacement is chosen.
Filson had a late start to her law career. Her family moved from Roanoke to Lexington when she was 16 years old and after graduating high school, she married a Virginia Military Institute graduate. They spent two years in Texas, where she completed one year at the University of Texas, before they moved back to Lexington.
She started working at the law library at Washington and Lee University and then as a secretary for a local lawyer, Tommy Spencer.
Spencer told her he would be looking for a law partner and asked her if she was interested. Filson had never considered law school and she had never finished her undergraduate degree. But with Spencer’s encouragement, she enrolled in the adult degree program at Mary Baldwin University. She took night classes while working full time and raising her young son, Gavin. After three years, she graduated summa cum laude.
“I look back on those years now and I just don’t know how I did it,” she said.
Filson applied to just one law school — Washington and Lee University — and was accepted. She graduated in 1986 at 35 years old and joined the new Spencer and Filson law firm.
In 2001, the General Assembly appointed her as a judge in juvenile and domestic relations court. At her swearing-in ceremony, her aunts and uncles gifted her a gavel her grandfather, a cabinetmaker, had crafted years before she was born. She said her family has no idea why he made it, but just that he thought one of his family members might need it one day.
Filson played with the gavel as a child, banging it and yelling “order in the court” at her sister and cousins.
“I guess I was bossy even back then,” Filson said.
She kept it on her desk every day, but she never once used it in the courtroom.
When Circuit Court Judge Michael Irvine announced his retirement in 2015, Filson was already considering her own retirement. But she decided to submit her name for consideration because she wanted Rockbridge County, Buena Vista and Lexington to keep a local judge. The General Assembly seemed to agree and Filson took the bench in 2016.
She said she didn’t plan to retire after only three years, but the job takes a toll. Over the past 18 years, she’s seen the best and worst of her community and the time has come for something new.
Filson wants her replacement to be a capable judge, but to also care deeply for the community.
“It is a job of service,” she said. “Putting that black robe on doesn’t make you one minute smarter than you were before you put it on. It’s easy to get the big head, but I’d like to think I avoided that.”
In retirement, Filson said she plans to practice photography, spend time with her grandchildren and take care of the cat, two dogs and 30 chickens that live on her 74-acre farm in northern Rockbridge County.
After more than 30 years in law, it’s time for something simpler.
“I want to learn to make biscuits,” Filson said. “I remember my grandma would take her hand and scoop out the Crisco and scoop out the flour and just work it all up and make the world’s best biscuits. I want to learn how to do that.”