Either Anthony Piland, a physician assistant from Tisbury, or George Davis, an attorney from Oak Bluffs, will replace Joe Sollitto after his 42 years of service and oversee the Dukes County Superior Court. Sollitto was only the seventh clerk in the court since 1859.
Both candidates for the clerkship have long professional careers and some level of graduate education, and both have performed volunteer community service on the Vineyard. The candidates agree the Dukes County Courthouse suffers from antiquated facilities, especially in regards to handicap access, and have said they would work with the state and the county to improve the building. Where Davis and Piland strongly differ is on the necessity of a legal background to properly perform the duties of the clerk of the court.
Piland, a former Air Force staff sergeant, chairman of the Vineyard Habitat for Humanity selection committee, and SailMV board member, said it’s a misconception that the elected position requires a law degree.
“I think a lot of emphasis is placed on lawyers getting these positions,” Piland said. “[I]t’s a public position that is open to anyone who is qualified. There are a lot more people who are qualified for public service than attorneys.”
Piland went on to say the commonwealth trains new superior court clerks in everything they will need to know.
“You need somebody that’s impartial, that’s honest, that’s going to be ethical and really work hard for the public,” he said. “[A]n important piece of the job is actually taught to you by the trial court institute up in Boston.”
Outgoing clerk Solitto said the state will provide some form of mentoring and guidance to the new clerk. He also said he would be happy to help whoever is elected by providing advice.
“I was surprised, frankly, that he’s running, because he’s been [at] the hospital,” Davis said of his opponent. A longtime attorney and former member of the Oak Bluffs finance committee and personnel board, Davis contended a legal background of some type is essential to the clerkship. “He doesn’t have any legal training or experience,” he said, and went on to say he thought it “odd that someone who’s not a lawyer” or “who’s not experienced in the court system in any way” would seek the position of superior court clerk.
“Legal [experience] does help,” Piland said, “however I think the administrative part is very important.”
Piland characterized the clerkship as largely administrative, and said his skill set is deep in administrative work. As a staff sergeant in the Air Force, Piland cut his teeth in paperwork organization and various management duties. In his current job, Piland manages high document volumes, trains staff, and has a number of specialized administrative duties.
Davis suggested Piland may be underestimating what the job entails.
“The brunt of the work is communicating with and dealing with judges and attorneys about active cases,” Davis said. “And to be able to do that you’ve got to be able to talk the language, know the process; you have to understand how the cases progress from initiation to completion — resolution one way or another — I think it’s a little naive to think he can just walk in and just do the job cold.”
“It biases the election to a certain degree,” Piland said of the preconception he believes many have about the clerkship requiring a law degree. “There’s not even a residency requirement for this position. Most people don’t know that.”
“It’s no coincidence,” Davis said of his past Democratic primary opponent, Charlie Morano,” that the focus of his campaign and my campaign was that we had the right experience for the job. And that’s because experience … in the court system, one way or another, it’s vitally important.”
Davis won a landslide victory against Morano. Piland, an unenrolled candidate, faced no primary competition.
Piland said he wants a more modern clerk’s office — one that connects with and informs the local community and employs common technology.
“That office, it needs to come into the 21st century,” he said. “They’re still on pen and paper for a lot of the way that they do their filings. A lot of the rest of the state is e-filing cases.”
Piland also hopes to better inform the public about how the court system works, if elected, and to make sure they know about other services the clerk’s office can provide, like processing a passport application.
Davis also said the clerk’s office needs a fundamental technology upgrade. He noted nobody can even leave the clerk’s office a telephone message, because it lacks an answering machine.
“[Piland] talks about how he would interact with the public,” Davis said. “Most of the job is not interacting with the public … If you’ve never tried a case and an attorney calls you with an issue about having to try a case and you don’t have any idea what [the attorney] is talking about, you’re the weak link in the chain of the efficient administration of justice.”
Asked if he would have any compunctions about calling out a peer in the system — for example, a judge or attorney — for unethical conduct, Piland said he wouldn’t, and would be immune to favoritism.
“I think one of my key strengths is that I’m not easily swayed,” he said. “I’m just that type of person. I’m not part of the system. I’m not part of the status quo … I don’t know anybody in that sense. I’ve been here 10 years so I know people, but not in that realm to where I could be influenced … You know I’ve worked in the ER many years, and you get those patients — you can tell the person who’s trying to sway you to write a prescription or something. You just don’t do those things. It’s all about ethics and really about character. That’s just my nature. I’m just not the kind of person who can be bought.”
Piland went on to point out that Edgartown District Court Magistrate Liza Williamson stepped up to call out ADA Laura Marshard for judicial misconduct.
“You know if something is wrong, you can’t continue to allow those things to happen,” he said. “So you have to speak up. It’s uncomfortable — the good thing about me, I’m not part of that system so I don’t have that familiarity with them. If I see something wrong, they’re not my friends. I haven’t known them for 30 years or 20 years — fresh eyes, fresh perspective. If I see something wrong, I’m going to speak up.”
Asked if he would put the spotlight on unethical activity in his arena, Davis said he would. He described it as an “ethical obligation everyone has.” He went on to say, “You want to keep everything as clean and transparent as possible so everyone gets the justice they deserve.” From Chappy to Cuttyhunk, the residents of Dukes County will decide which candidate will be clerk No. 8 on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6.