published Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Verdict in: Starnes chosen for Hamilton County General Sessions

Gary Starnes celebrates his victory in the race for General Sessions Judge on Thursday, August 2, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Gary Starnes celebrates his victory in the race for General Sessions Judge on Thursday, August 2, 2012, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Photo by Allison Love.

In a clear verdict, voters on Thursday chose attorney Gary Starnes to take the Hamilton County General Sessions bench over the interim judge, David Norton.

Starnes beat Norton with 37 percent of the vote Thursday night, with 126 out of 127 precincts reporting.

"We did very well," Starnes said as he celebrated with family and supporters at a downtown restaurant Thursday night. "We had the best team that you could possibly put together."

In legal circles, Norton had long been considered the favorite after the Hamilton County Commission appointed him to fill the vacancy left when Judge Bob Moon died in January.

But Starnes, who owns a private practice, had doggedly drummed up name recognition through ads and events in a relentless campaign that had out-funded Norton by $15,000 -- including more than $35,000 from Starnes' own pocket.

Starnes also received a number of key endorsements, including the Chattanooga Firefighters Association and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers

Norton recently had acknowledged he was coping with an illness that affected his motor skills. It kept him off the bench for at least one-third of the time of his appointment and hampered campaign efforts.

Norton, who watched election returns from home with his family, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But he said in a release last week that he wanted to "see the election through" despite his illness.

Starnes also bested former magistrate judge and prosecutor Yolanda Echols Mitchell and attorneys Ron Powers, Joe DeGaetano, Valerie Epstein and Patricia Best Vital.

Starnes could be sworn is as soon as the election results are certified, sometime before Aug. 20.

Starnes has six months to close down his practice. Once in office, he will make a $156,792 salary.

He will serve a two-year term and could choose to run for an eight-year term in the next county general election in August 2014.

It's unclear what's next for Norton, who had gambled his longtime post as Soddy-Daisy city judge and his job as assistant county attorney to accept the interim judge appointment.

Marty Lasley won the packed-out race to succeed Norton in Soddy-Daisy, with more than 37 percent of the vote. The assistant county attorney position remains open.

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