published Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Fairness for Sessions Court

County Commissioners moved with appropriate speed Wednesday to seek a place on the August ballot for election of an interim Sessions Court judge. The position, left vacant last week by the untimely death of Judge Bob Moon, needs to be filled for the next two years until the current eight-year judicial term expires in 2014.

Now commissioners need to select a caretaker judge to fill the seat until a newly elected judge takes office in September for the interim term. In doing so, they should follow a few sensible criteria to avoid giving political cronies and friends an unfair advantage in the August election, and, further, in the 2014 election for a full-term judge.

One criteria is to name a caretaker who promises not to seek the seat in August. In fact, commissioners easily could wait until the April 5 filing deadline for August candidates has passed to ensure that a short-term caretaker will not campaign for the seat.

That would serve voters well, and uphold the spirit of an impartial judiciary by honoring the state's guiding principle of nonpartisan elections for judges. Avoiding selection of a politically ambitious caretaker also would help keep politics off the bench and out of the court. That's especially critical in Sessions Court, which has been long been subject to too much overt and covert politics.

Another criteria concerns political transparency and public meetings. Commission chairman Jim Henry is already arguing, again, for secrecy. He contends that county commissioners should be able to interview applicants for the caretaker job in private -- as they wrongly did to fill an empty county commission seat.

That's wrong. First, it suggests that the commission, or Henry himself, wants to vet and appoint a caretaker who intends to run for the August election. Secondly, it incorrectly suggests that there's something about judicial conduct and relevant legal background that should be off the record and out of public view.

Look, a judgeship in Sessions Court is a very public role. As the main judicial arena for traffic accidents and tickets, DUI's, minor civil disputes, and misdemeanor offenses, Sessions Court is as close to the legal system as most citizens will ever get. It's the peoples' court, in the broadest sense of the term. Taxpayers, moreover, pay the judges $156,000 a year, plus generous benefits, for what too many Sessions judges have treated as a cushy, practically part-time job. To confirm that, see which judges are in their offices after 3 o'clock most days --or after lunch on Fridays.

Voters and taxpayers across the county have a deeply vested interest in candidates for one of the five Sessions Court judgeships. County commissioners should not keep private any interviews with potential candidates for a judgeship to be awarded by county commissioners, and possibly given a leg up in the August election.

That's insider politics. It goes against the public interest, and treats voters like it's not their public interest, and their public right, to know what's happening with candidates, or how they conduct themselves when the public is watching. Henry should be ashamed of himself for thinking otherwise. It's a blatant insult. The public deserves better, especially for Sessions Court.

As for other criteria, Sessions Court needs judges who know and respect the law and rule accordingly; who set bail under legal guidelines without political grandstanding; who arrive in court on time and who limit chamber meetings in respect for crowded courtrooms and waiting lawyers; who eschew nepotism and cronyism in the hiring of staff; who abstain from politically oriented-public statements and conduct; and who follow the judicial code of ethics.

Potential candidates for the current vacancy are already being mentioned. Among these are David Norton, a member of the county attorney's staff and municipal judge in Soddy Daisy; Red Bank judge Johnny Houston; attorneys Gary Starnes, Dan McGowan and Robert Philyaw.

The fairest thing for all these candidates is a caretaker appointment of a non-candidate, preferably a retired judge or a senior lawyer who would promise to fill the seat until August, and no longer. If county commissioners are fair to the public and the court, they will appoint someone like that, and leave the August election wide open.

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Erasmus said...

The citizens of Hamilton County deserve better than another shameless self-promoter more interested in seeing his name in the headlines rather than being a fair arbiter of the law. Our local judiciary suffered two black eyes in the past two months from a pair of judges who demonstrated a shocking contempt for the tenets of fair play and ethical propriety. So, yes, please give qualified, seasoned attorneys an opportunity to make their cases to the electorate instead of making another cynical, partisan appointment.

February 4, 2012 at 1:28 a.m.
John_Proctor said...

The themes of the editorial, appointing a caretaker as an interim judge as well as using a public selection process are correct. However, I believe the name of the present Hamilton County Commission is incorrect.

Larry Henry is the chairman of the Hamilton County Commission. The late Jim Henry was superintendent of the Chattanooga City school system and a respected teacher at City High years ago. Could that be the Henry the writer had in mind?

February 4, 2012 at 2:01 a.m.
ldurham said...

The Times editorial writer doesn't even know the name of the County Commission chair. So it's unlikely any of his other "facts" are right either.

February 4, 2012 at 8:14 a.m.

Oh goodness, getting a name wrong. My word. Tell me, should I put my mother in jail when she does the same thing with her children?

February 4, 2012 at 10:03 a.m.
ldurham said...

Yeah, not knowing the name of the person you're ripping in an editorial isn't that big a deal. It's just a daily newspaper. It's not like facts are important.

February 4, 2012 at 12:13 p.m.

The facts are, people aren't perfect, and they can make minor errors without it being a distortion or a misrepresentation.

Picking on a trivial detail like this kind of mistake as the focus of your argument only reflects a hostile judgment that doesn't concern itself with genuine reasoning, but just petty details.

Thanks for showing you aren't an honest critic.

February 4, 2012 at 12:30 p.m.
John_Proctor said...

Hey new bulb person.

If your mother gets her kids names mixed up, it matters only to the kids and her. That is unless she publishes their names in her newspaper.

When the editorial writer of the area's leading newspaper gets names mixed up, especially the name of one of the county's most politically powerful leaders, the screaming parrots who attack the paper get to point out all sorts of errors of fact, real or imagined. That's why the error is worth noting. It is a "my bad" type of error, the kind all of us make on a daily basis. However, it will take on a life of its own among the paper's self-appointed fairness police. I never claimed it was a distortion or misrepresentation. It is, however, an error worth noting.

Speaking of names our parents called us, I was 14 years old before I realized that my middle name was not the same as the word that comes after the name of a prominent concrete structure that spans the Tennessee River and supports a bridge on Highway 153. Thrasher is not the name my dad used when he yelled at me but the word that comes after Chickamauga was.

February 4, 2012 at 5:42 p.m.

Actually, I was thinking of the latter post, which had a far more negative tone, not yours, which was just pointing out the error.

February 4, 2012 at 5:48 p.m.
John_Proctor said...

mea culpa on my part. After re-reading your posts I suspect that we both share the same opinion as to the error and its potential fallout.

February 4, 2012 at 6:12 p.m.

The world may end, dogs and cats may live together, and I dunno, McDonalds might run out of Shake mix?

February 4, 2012 at 8:23 p.m.
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