IN HIS OWN WORDS
“The General Sessions Court is one of the most important courts in our legal system. The court disposes of both civil and criminal cases and personally touches the lives of more citizens in a single day than any other court. It is truly the people’s court and formulates the opinions of more people about our judicial system than any other court.” — Judge Bob Moon, during his re-election bid in 1998
An air of stunned disbelief hovered in the Hamilton County Courthouse as news of the unexpected death of General Sessions Judge Bob Moon filtered through the halls Thursday.
“You expect to see him like you would the walls of this building. The idea of Judge Moon being gone today is like having the courthouse crumble,” said Lee Davis, a former prosecutor now a private defense attorney who tried many cases — from both sides of the aisle — before Moon.
Courthouse staff placed Moon’s nameplate on the door and bench of his Division V courtroom, which sat empty Thursday. Sessions Court will be closed today in his honor, said fellow Sessions Judge Clarence Shattuck.
“He was a talented and articulate man,” Shattuck said. “He had a deep concern for young people and gave counsel to numerous schools and various groups and even from the bench, when appropriate.”
Moon’s wife of 35 years, Debbie I. Moon, found him dead at his computer early Thursday morning, said Hamilton County Commissioner Mitch McClure. Authorities believe it was a heart attack.
The 60-year-old Moon first served as a part-time judge in Signal Mountain for 13 years while practicing law. In 1996, the Hamilton County Commission appointed him to a newly created Sessions Court seat.
He won election two years later with 69 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in 2006. Judicial terms are eight years.
Defense attorney Wendi Stanfield said meeting Moon changed the course of her legal career.
She’d returned to Chattanooga from 10 years of commercial law work in New York, disillusioned and thinking she might leave the field.
“He said, ‘Come to court, you can try criminal law,’” she said. “He kind of convinced me to come over and I did. My whole career shifted.”
Moon was a mentor to her, she said.
“He loved it if you asked him questions or needed guidance on an issue; he was always there,” she said.
Moon’s career wasn’t without waves. This month, he was reprimanded by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary on three complaints, including one that said he didn’t allow a defendant to receive proper counsel in his courtroom.
Moon responded to the reprimands by stating the following:
“Although, there is a respectful, but definitive, difference of opinion in the interpretation and applicability of the law and legal opinions relevant to these issues, the Court of the Judiciary is there to assist us and to make us better judges.”
Moon also ran into a controversy in 2010 when a local attorney accused the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency of judge shopping, steering certain wildlife cases to Moon and Judge David Bales — both avid outdoorsmen — to gain an advantage in how the cases were decided.
During a trial, former judges and clerks testified that cases were assigned randomly by computer to Sessions Court judges, but that between 85 and 95 percent of the TWRA cases went to Moon or Bales. Testimony revealed TWRA agents requested certain dates for hearings in order to get cases heard by Moon or Bales.
But both judges were cleared of any wrongdoing in April 2010 after the Tennessee Court of Appeals found no evidence that either “committed any violations of the code of judicial conduct or were otherwise biased in their disposition of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cases.”
County commissioners were shocked at the news of Moon’s death, the second death in their circle this week.
“I didn’t believe it,” Commissioner Joe Graham said. “It’s just devastating. I lost a dear friend.”
In the past week, Moon spent hours with commissioners in the Memorial Hospital intensive care waiting room. They kept vigil for Commissioner Jim Fields and Rees Skillern, the only son of Commissioner Fred Skillern, who both were being treated.
Rees Skillern died Tuesday after a seven-year battle with cancer.
Graham said he talked to Moon on Wednesday night and planned to come by the judge’s office after Thursday’s commission meeting. Graham planned to sign a poem Moon was writing for Rees Skillern’s funeral.
“I don’t know if he was staying up to finish it,” Graham said. “Bob and Fred were like family.”
McClure said Moon’s poem talked about the “streets of gold” in heaven.
“Now they are together,” McClure said. “This shows us how fragile life is.”
Along with loving the outdoors, Moon, a Chattanooga native, was an active Boys and Girls Club supporter. Michael Cranford, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga, worked with Moon in the early 1970s when both were club camp counselors.
“He was a spirited young man and got involved in a lot of things,” Cranford said.
He remembered one club program that Moon started more than a decade ago — Tie Day.
As Cranford remembers it, a young man came to Moon’s courtroom shabbily dressed. Moon asked if the man owned a necktie or could tie one. When the answer was “no,” the judge solicited necktie donations and recruited local professionals to pair up with young men for a mentor lunch and necktie lesson.
Red Bank City Judge Johnny Houston began a friendship with Moon after a contentious court case when they faced each other as lawyers.
“After the hearing he won he said, ‘I don’t know how long you’ve been practicing law but I’m going to give you some advice,’” Houston recalled. “I turned to him and said, ‘I didn’t ask for any of your advice.’”
But a short while later, Houston said he realized the advice Moon gave him was correct and good guidance.
“I called him and apologized,” Houston said. “From that point on we were real close.”
Staff writer Beth Burger contributed to this story.
Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...