With one ethics complaint pending against General Sessions Judges Bob Moon and David Bales, and another one against just Bales, some local attorneys and the former Hamilton County Republican Party chairwoman are opening up about what they see as a pattern of judicial abuse.
But the judges said they have acted appropriately on and off the bench.
The attorneys allege that:
* Moon mistreats Hispanic defendants in his courtroom, chastising them for not knowing English and calling them names like "Taco." One court interpreter claimed Moon berated Hispanic defendants for their inability to speak English.
* Bales regularly misquotes the law. Attorney David Barrow said Bales tells defendants that if they miss court on a Class A misdemeanor charge, they will be charged with another misdemeanor. Barrow said, under the law, they would be charged with a felony, which could have much more serious consequences.
The attorneys and the former chairwoman, Delores Vinson, allege that:
* Moon and Bales both are involved in local politics -- Bales to the point that it's become a concern for some in the Republican Party. Moon and Bales said they have made their views privately known to others. But Vinson said Bales provided opposition research on one candidate and demanded her resignation in a heated confrontation outside the Election Commission Office.
Bales and Moon defend their conduct. Moon denied all of the allegations regarding mistreatment of Hispanic defendants, and Bales defended his legal credentials. Both said their political activities are within the boundaries of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Attorneys Barrow, Hilary Hodgkins and Barry Abbott agreed to speak publicly about their experiences. Three other attorneys expressed concerns about Bales and Moon, but did not want to be quoted because they feared the potential consequences of criticizing sitting judges.
Vinson also talked about Bales' involvement in party politics.
Attorney Hank Hill of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has filed an ethics complaint against Bales with the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary. Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern has filed a complaint against both Bales and Moon. Both complaints, which are pending, refer to the judges' alleged political activity.
Moon said the disagreements with the attorneys stem from a 2009 decision to block attorneys from using the back halls of Sessions Court, passing through its hallways and using its kitchen. He said the judges restricted attorneys' access to hallways and kitchens "for security purposes."
"I believe when the judges restricted their hallways and corridors and kitchens for security purposes, that became very problematical for some of the criminal defense lawyers," Moon said. "They were upset."
But a poll on the judges' performance and the attorneys' accounts suggest they had issues with Bales and Moon well before 2009.
The Chattanooga Bar Association conducts periodic polls among attorneys about how they rank local judges. The most recent poll, in 2007, measured the anonymous responses of 121 bar association members.
The other three General Sessions Judges -- Christie Mahn Sell, Clarence Shattuck and Ronald Durby -- all received high marks in five different categories: objectivity, legal ability, moral character, diligence and judicial temperament.
But the 121 attorneys, while giving Bales and Moon high marks for moral character and diligence, gave them unsatisfactory ratings that their fellow judges did not receive.
The largest percentage of respondents -- 36 percent -- rated Bales' legal ability as "unsatisfactory." Forty percent rated Moon's ability to be objective as "unsatisfactory." Forty percent also rated Moon's judicial temperament as "unsatisfactory."
Moon said the bar association polls are unreliable and that most of the voting attorneys don't practice in Sessions Court.
"The poll that matters most is the people's poll on Election Day once every eight years," Moon said.
Bales provided the Chattanooga Times Free Press an extensive list of his legal credentials, including work in the district attorney's office in Shelby County, Tenn.
"The people of Hamilton County will be the poll that I depend on every eight years. ... I don't pay that much attention to it," Bales said.
Barrow and Hodgkins both said they've witnessed Bales misquote or misunderstand the law on several occasions. The only specific example Barrow could cite, however, is Bales' alleged misquoting of the consequences for failing to appear on a Class A misdemeanor, which he said happens often.
"A law school student would know the difference," Barrow said.
Bales said if he did that, he misspoke. He said he is aware of the difference.
"It's another example of Mr. Barrow trying to nitpick," Bales said.
Reports of misconduct
Barrow said both Bales and Moon are "activists," which he said means they believe it's their job as judges to correct problems in the community.
That is beyond the scope of a judges' responsibility, he said, adding that the problems attorneys have with them go well beyond what's in the two ethics complaints.
Both Barrow and Hodgkins said they have heard Moon mistreat Hispanic defendants.
"Judge Moon would call out the Hispanic client's name," Barrow said. "He would make up a variety of fictitious Hispanic names and end up saying something to the effect of, 'Julio, Taco, whoever you are, come up here' and [he would] really berate people for not speaking the English language."
Said Hodgkins: "I have witnessed that sometimes derogatory terms are used by Moon; sometimes he'll refer to 'Taco' or 'Enchilada' when there's a Mexican or Guatemalan national who has a case, and there's always an assumption those individuals are here illegally. That's not always the case."
Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judges David Bales and Bob Moon were ranked low in some categories in a 2007 Chattanooga Bar Association poll of local attorneys. Read the entire poll at timesfreepress.com.
Objectivity % Superior Satisfactory Unsatisfactory No Opinion
David Bales 20.73 35.37 20.73 23.17
Ronald Durby 34.48 39.08 12.64 13.79
Robert Moon 12.22 35.56 40 12.22
Christie Mahn Sell 43.96 34.07 3.30 18.68
Clarence Shattuck 79.79 9.57 4.26 6.38
Legal ability % Superior Satisfactory Unsatisfactory No Opinion
David Bales 12.05 30.12 36.14 21.69
Ronald Durby 27.59 45.98 12.64 13.79
Robert Moon 21.11 42.22 24.44 12.22
Christie Mahn Sell 34.07 41.76 6.59 17.58
Clarence Shattuck 75.53 13.83 4.26 6.38
Source: Chattanooga Bar Association
Party: Ran as a Democrat; says he is nonpartisan
First elected: Appointed General Sessions judge 1996; ran in 1998; re-elected in 2006.
Education: Graduated from Memphis State University School of Law in 1976.
Prior experience: Signal Mountain judge, 1983-1996.
First elected: Appointed General Sessions judge 2005; ran in 2006 and elected to eight-year term.
Education: Graduated from the University of Tennessee Law School in 1973.
Prior experience: Assistant district attorney general in the Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tenn.; also worked in general practice in Memphis handling federal, state and city cases. Owner of Fantastic Sam's hair salons franchise; corporate lawyer for Fantastic Sam's. Served as a special General Sessions judge prior to 2005 appointment. Former Hamilton County Republican Party chairman.
Sources: Bob Moon, David Bales
Moon said Barrow's and Hodgkins' claims were "scurrilous." He directed a Times Free Press reporter to an interpreter, Ana Faulk, who said Moon is always very respectful toward Hispanic clients.
Another interpreter, Netchie Lopez, who worked as a court interpreter for 15 years, said Moon takes a harder line with Hispanic defendants over their inability to speak English. She did not, however, hear Moon calling them names like "Taco."
"I always felt uncomfortable when he started berating them for not speaking English," Lopez said.
Moon agreed with Lopez that he does place an emphasis on Hispanic defendants learning English.
"There are so many critical times when speaking the language would be beneficial, such as dialing 911, cooperating with law enforcement and health care officials in emergency situations," Moon said. "There are too many other benefits to list. Obviously, it is not a requirement, nor should it be."
Vinson said Bales' high profile in local Republican Party politics has concerned some party members.
"He does come across as a zealot," the former chairwoman said. "And because of his steadfast beliefs, sometimes he seems more somewhat intimidating, people have said."
Vinson recounted two recent alleged incidents. In one, Bales gave party leaders opposition research on Republican Chester Heathington, who ran in 2010 against County Clerk Bill Knowles, a Democrat. After Knowles was re-elected, he switched parties.
"Judge Bales was very adamant that Chester Heathington was not the candidate for our party," Vinson said.
Heathington said he did not know about the incident.
"I don't know what he would know about me that's not public," Heathington said.
Vinson said she and Bales also got into a heated confrontation outside the Hamilton County Election Commission office over a complaint someone had filed in the District 8 County Commission race between Kenny Smith and Tim Boyd.
The complaint was against Democrat Smith, and Vinson said it was not officially authorized by the party.
She said Bales confronted her outside the Election Commission office and told her she was embarrassing the party and should resign as chairwoman.
"David was so passionate about it that I had to ask him to step away from me twice," Vinson said. "He was so close to me physically, within six inches of my face."
Election Commission attorney Chris Clem witnessed the confrontation but said he did not remember what was said or why the two Republicans were arguing.
Bales said he did not compile the research on Heathington but only gave Vinson a copy of information he received about Heathington's criminal record. Heathington has a record of misdemeanor offenses dating to 1982; it became an issue in the County Clerk's race.
Bales declined to discuss any conversations he had with Vinson, saying they are private. He said his conduct is allowed under the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Abbott, a defense attorney who managed the campaign of Hallie McFadden against Bales in 2006, said he also got reports of Moon's involvement in that race.
"People kept coming to me saying Bob Moon has taken David Bales over to this function and that function," Abbott recalled. "It was certainly frustrating because I thought that judges were not supposed to endorse political candidates."
Abbott said Bales has been a "perfect gentleman" toward him in the courtroom.
Moon said he believes his conduct is within the bounds established by the Code of Judicial Conduct. He said Abbott's claims are a "mystery" to him and said Abbott and McFadden never mentioned it to him.
The Code of Judicial Conduct states a judge must not engage in "inappropriate political activity."
Judges are not allowed to endorse or oppose publicly a candidate for public office, make speeches on behalf of a political organization, solicit money for a political organization or contribute to a candidate. A judge may vote in elections and privately express political views to others.
Both formal complaints touch on a wide range of issues and claim ethics violations regarding the judges' alleged political activity. In addition, the parties filing the complaints alleged that the judges pressured county commissioners as they worked to appoint a successor to Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey.
Barrow said he and other attorneys who have problems with Bales' and Moon's conduct should have filed complaints "immediately" when they saw conduct they thought was improper.
"We are the check and balance for the system," Barrow said. "I think to some extent we haven't done our job by not complaining earlier. We should've made a complaint the first time it happened."
Abbott said with all the work of running the campaign, he did not have time to file ethics complaints. He said he did not witness the incidents personally and investigating them would have drained resources he needed to devote to the election.
Hodgkins said complaining would have made it difficult for attorneys to represent their clients effectively.
"We have to practice in those courts on a daily basis, so I think that there's a lot of conduct that people just put up with," Hodgkins said.
Moon said he will not hold the allegations against the attorneys who made them or their clients when they appear in his courtroom.
"I have a good rapport with a number of the attorneys and I get very, very few appeals of my decisions, and I believe that every citizen has a right to their opinion," Moon said.
Bales said he is doing what he thinks is best for the people of Hamilton County.
"I go to work every day and try to take care of the people's business as far as doing my job," he said. "I try to be fair and impartial and I do follow the law and try to do the best job I can do as a judge for the benefit of the citizens of Hamilton County."
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Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...