By Ian Berry
Hamilton County Commission candidate Bernie Miller said his relationship with a member of the Tennessee Judicial Selection Commission helped make Public Defender Ardena Garth a finalist for a recent opening.
Mr. Miller said he had conversations with Memphis minister Samuel Billy Kyles to convey that Ms. Garth was an excellent candidate for a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge seat.
Mr. Miller, a Republican who is challenging Democratic Commissioner Greg Beck in District 5, said that in offering his support for Ms. Garth, a Democrat, he was trying to do what’s best for local residents rather than thinking about party affiliation.
“It really speaks to what I think local politics is all about,” Mr. Miller said.
The selection commission chose Ms. Garth and attorneys Don Poole and Jerry Sloan as finalists for the Criminal Court judgeship. Gov. Phil Bredesen, who makes the final appointment, chose Mr. Poole for the judgeship in January.
Democratic Party Chairman Stuart James criticized Mr. Miller’s statement.
“His suggestion is worrisome, as no one on the Judicial Selection Commission is subject to political influence, persuasion or corruption,” Mr. James said. “Ardena Garth was a finalist based upon her outstanding record and qualifications. Her nomination has nothing to do with what Mr. Miller did or did not do.”
Ms. Garth said of Mr. Miller’s help, “that did happen, and I was quite grateful.” But she said Mr. Beck has helped her, too, in recent efforts to add a $12.50 fee to court cases that would provide funding to her office.
She said that, although the commission has not approved the request, Mr. Beck “helped get the ball rolling” on the issue.
Mr. Miller on Tuesday played a voice-mail message he said was from Ms. Garth after she was chosen as a finalist.
“Thank you so much for everything,” she said in the brief message. “I’ll be in touch.”
Mr. Kyles, a longtime civil rights activist who witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, said he has known Mr. Miller since 1973. He said Mr. Miller recommended Ms. Garth very highly. But Mr. Kyles said that with 17 members on the commission, his influence is limited.
“I’m not sure how much credit I ought to get or he ought to get,” Mr. Kyles said.
Mr. Kyles said he accepted Mr. Miller’s call as a call of support, and he called Ms. Garth “an excellent candidate.” He gets many letters and phone calls during the selection process, he said.
Mr. Beck said Ms. Garth has an excellent record that stands for itself, and that Mr. Miller’s statements made it appear there was some sort of other influence involved.
“I think it’s improper and politically incorrect to even mention that,” Mr. Beck said.
Mr. Miller mentioned the judicial appointment as an example of his “vast national and local Rolodex of contacts.”
Mr. Beck and Mr. Miller will face off in the county’s Aug. 3 general election.
Mr. Miller, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship, tangled with Mr. James after announcing he was running as a Republican last year. Mr. James said Mr. Miller misled Democrats into thinking he was running on their ticket by attending the Kefauver dinner fund raiser before his announcement.
Mr. Miller said he never indicated at the dinner he would run as a Democrat.
Mr. Beck, who handles security for City Court Judge Sherry Paty, defeated challenger Cynthia Coleman in the Democratic primary.
E-mail Ian Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org