Defense attorney Page Higginbotham III is looking to “help people” and continue the family legacy as he seeks to unseat longtime incumbent Diana Wheeler O’Connell in the race for Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney.
A native of Orange County, Higginbotham, 45, is the son of Samuel Higginbotham II, who practiced law in Orange for 42 years and served as a substitute judge, and the grandson of the late Page Higginbotham, who served as Orange County’s commonwealth’s attorney for 27 years and founded the firm now called Bowman and Harper. Higginbotham III has worked as a defense attorney for Bowman and Harper since October of 2016.
He said local attorneys and law enforcement officers encouraged him to run for commonwealth’s attorney against O’Connell, who is completing her fourth term in office.
Higginbotham grew up on the family beef cattle farm off Old Gordonsville Road, graduated from Woodberry Forest School and attended the College of William & Mary for several years. He worked in the wine industry and helped run the family farm before moving to Richmond and enrolling in the University of Richmond, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2011. In 2016, he earned his law degree from the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law and returned to Orange to practice law.
At Bowman and Harper, which specializes in criminal defense and traffic cases, his responsibilities include serving as a court-appointed attorney. He said he has represented clients in hundreds of cases in 12 counties.
Although he hasn’t tried any murder cases and has done only “a couple” of jury trials during his three years as a lawyer, he said he has represented clients charged with drug distribution, malicious wounding and drunk driving, among other offenses.
Higginbotham said that when he decided to change careers and enroll in law school, he already was married with children.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I really wanted to do what my dad and granddad did, which was help the people of Orange County. That was always their thing. They were really serious about helping people. And that’s what I’ve tried to do as a criminal defense attorney—help people to get a fair trial, to make the system work.”
He and his family live on the Higginbotham farm. Until recently, his wife, Ansley, served as a youth minister at a Methodist church in Richmond. The couple has two young sons who attend Grymes Memorial School.
Why are you running for
I feel really passionately about helping to make Orange County a safe place for my children, for the citizens of Orange County. I feel like in order for the system to work correctly, you have to have zealous prosecution and zealous defense. It’s an adversarial system. And for it to work right, you have to have people who are working hard on both sides to get justice done. I enjoy being a criminal defense attorney, but I’d really like to have an opportunity to do the other side. It’s the same work. It’s like a coin. You have heads and tails, but they’re both still parts of the same coin. So the work is very similar in nature to defense work. It’s just turned on its head.
And I feel like it’s something that I’d like to do because I have kids here, I have a wife here, I have a farm here and I care deeply about Orange. My wife and I made a choice to come back to Orange because it’s a place that we really love, and it’s a place where we want to raise our children, and it’s a place where I care that people are safe and that justice gets done.
What do you consider the one or two most pressing criminal justice issues facing Orange County?
We have a lot of drugs in Orange County, and across the country. … I think that in part due to that, and in part just because drugs and alcohol and addiction are such a big problem, we also have problems that come indirectly from those. So a lot of property crime is driven by behavior [of people] trying to get money to feed addictions. I think that trying to deal with the underlying drug problems will have an effect on keeping people and their property safer. It’s not just the drugs—they cause problems for the people doing the drugs—the people doing the drugs cause problems for everyone else.
And I’ll tell you that I think that the over-consumption of alcohol—drunkenness—still causes a lot of problems. We see it in domestic situations; we see it in driving situations. I think that people really need to understand that addiction is what drives so much of the crime in the United States.
What would you do as commonwealth’s attorney to address the drug crisis?
Well, I think that one of the main things that we need to do is to work on the distribution system. Obviously, [people] using illegal drugs should be prosecuted, but I think that it’s important to try to track down people that are bringing drugs into Orange County and people that are selling drugs in Orange County, and to try to stem that as it starts.
You want to be able to try to cut the supply down, but you also want to address the demand. If people are getting treatment, if people are getting sentences that take them out of circulation for some time, I think that both of those things cut down on the demand for drugs. And I think that if you can combine those two things, if you can combine real, meaningful sentences that have incarceration, but also have components that involve treatment, then you can decrease the demand. And if you can decrease the demand, then over time [the problem] will go away.
What does it take for a commonwealth’s attorney to have a strong and productive partnership with local law enforcement agencies?
I think we can start out with simple things like being professional. And by that I mean being respectful with them and making sure that they know that their work is valued; that you take what they’re telling you seriously and that you take the time to listen to them and to understand the amount of effort that they put into what they do.
They put a lot of time into even simple cases and much more so in really complicated cases. So they really want to know that you take them seriously, which I would. Also, it comes to making sure that they get responsiveness when they bring something to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. They want to know that someone’s going to call them back and that someone is going to get them in the office to sit down with them and go over the facts of the case.
The prosecutions are the commonwealth’s attorney’s area. But the investigations have to lead the commonwealth’s attorney along, in order to get to the right place. If you don’t have a partnership between the two where they’re working together hand in glove, it just doesn’t work right.
Why should a voter cast
a ballot for you?
I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think we needed a change. I think that there are certain things that can be improved. I think that we can reset some relationships with law enforcement, and the sheriff [Mark Amos] is supporting me because he believes that we can have some more meaningful relationships there, some things that could be done a little differently.
I also think that I will put together a team of attorneys that will be serious and professional, that will work really, really hard to try to get the outcome that is best for the people of Orange County. That doesn’t always mean that we will prosecute every single case as hard as it possibly could [be].
There’s a certain amount of discretion involved, and I think it’s important to know the commonwealth’s attorney is charged with doing justice. That’s the oath that a commonwealth’s attorney takes. And my goal is to be fair to everyone. And sometimes that means that you push as hard as you possibly can and sometimes that you use discretion.
Finding the right balance of that is what I think I can do. I have the experience, the temperament and the legal skills that’ll be necessary to make sure that the office runs in a professional manner.