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Suffolk City Attorney moves to the bench

Helivi Holland has had numerous roles as an attorney throughout her career, which she feels will serve her well in her new capacity as a judge for Suffolk General District Court.

Holland’s last day as city attorney will be March 3, when City Council will begin the process of naming an interim city attorney and ultimately finding her successor. The city attorney since 2012 who previously served as the director of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Holland will serve a six-year term on the bench.

“I am extremely happy as well as grateful for the General Assembly’s vote for me to serve as a judge,” Holland said. “I’m also extremely happy that the delegation for the Fifth Judicial District fully supported my judgeship. I’m eternally grateful for all the people involved.”

Holland said state Sen. Louise Lucas has been a longtime champion for her, and Del. Clinton Jenkins has supported it since he was elected, and now she is preparing “to be the best judge that I can possibly be.”

While she has many friends who will vouch that being a judge was a goal of hers since she was in elementary school, she chuckles and says she doesn’t remember that.

“I will say that, yes this is something that I wanted to do for a long period of time,” Holland said.

But she took a long and winding path to get there.

After graduating with a business degree from Virginia Tech, she went to William & Mary law school to study corporate law, but ultimately never went into corporate law. She went to work for Herman Benn with the small law firm of Benn and Benn for her first job, where she fell in love with being in court.

She then worked for the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and the Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office before being named as a deputy city attorney in 2008.

She was appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell to head the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, and in 2012, returned to Suffolk to work as the city attorney, replacing C. Edward Roettger Jr.

“When I got the call to come back to Suffolk in the city attorney’s office, it just rounded out my career where I thought that would be where I would retire from,” Holland said, “and then when this opportunity came up, I just could not pass on the opportunity.”

Holland believes her broad scope of experience — as a prosecutor, defense attorney, as an adjunct professor at Paul D. Camp Community College in which she taught on two campuses as well as at a Virginia Department of Corrections facility, among other things — will lend itself well to being a judge and will give her a comfort level to serve on the bench.

Her first day on the bench will be April 1. By ending her time in Suffolk early this month, it will give Holland time to go to the various courts in the Fifth Judicial District — which encompasses Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County — learn her way around and meet all the clerks and sheriff’s offices in those courts.

“You have four different venues, and I wanted to have a comfort level for all the venues,” Holland said.

She also has to undergo mandatory pre-bench orientation for a week in April and another week in June.

Holland has already had a chance to visit Suffolk General District Court. While there’s generally a heavy workload for the court and judges, there has been more of one during the coronavirus pandemic, though she said virtual technology has provided the court with the means to start getting caught up.

She said she is unsure what her judicial temperament would be, but noted as an attorney, she had to anticipate what the other side would do. But as a judge, she has to listen to both sides and is committed to having a temperament of impartiality and a desire for fairness, justice, compliance and following the law.

Holland has had many people to call upon for advice throughout her career, but among them has been Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Alfreda Talton-Harris, the first Black woman to serve in the Fifth Judicial District and someone who has been a mentor since Holland started practicing law in 1991.

“She has been so encouraging, so supportive,” Holland said, “making sure I was doing the right things at the right time, and I owe a lot of my gratitude to her, as she helped me model my career of how you practice law.”

Another federal judge, Raymond Johnson, served in the military with Holland’s mother and has given her advice over the years. And without Birdie Jamison, Holland said she might not have gotten into law school, as it was Jamison, then Holland’s business law professor, who wrote her recommendation letter to William & Mary law school. Both later became prosecutors.

Holland said her appointment is important to increase diversity in the courtroom, noting that anyone in the courthouse should be able to identify with someone in the courtroom.

“Diversity doesn’t always mean racial,” Holland said. “Diversity is important to everyone involved. I just can’t see how we can actually operate without at least acknowledging the need, and then making an effort for it to be accomplished.”

Leaving her role as the city attorney to move to the courtroom as a judge will be difficult, but Holland said she didn’t have the right word to describe it.

“I think the word, ‘bittersweet,’ is close, but not close enough to what I am feeling about this appointment in serving on the bench,” Holland said. “As I might have mentioned, when I came back to Suffolk to serve as city attorney was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I thought that’s the way I would probably retire as the city attorney.

“I have met so many wonderful, hard-working, intelligent people while serving as the city attorney, and being in my hometown serving as the city attorney. It added something to my job when I was not just doing it as a job, I was doing it for the people that I know, love and have known all of my life — my friends, my classmates, my church members (at First Baptist Church Mahan). I was doing everything I did in efforts for the city of Suffolk because it was that important for all of those people that I mentioned.”

Mayor Mike Duman said the city would miss Holland as city attorney but understood being a judge was a goal of Holland’s.

“I knew that this was something that she had aspired to do for quite some time,” Duman said. “And I mean, I’m disappointed that she’ll be stepping down as the city attorney. I have a great respect for her legal acumen and her dedication that she’s displayed during her tenure with the city as the city attorney. I’m elated that she’s been appointed as a judge to the Suffolk district court, and I’m confident that she’ll do an outstanding job performing those duties as well, and will continue to serve our citizens in an exemplary manner.”

She didn’t see herself leaving as city attorney until she was 62 and ready to retire. But at 55, the opportunity to serve as a judge was too good to pass up for Holland, even if the right word to describe it is not quite there.

“It is very bittersweet to leave the city attorney’s office because the office was excellent, the city staff was excellent, I had an excellent relationship with City Council.”