published Friday, July 27th, 2012

Sessions Court Judge David Norton explains illness, absence

A judge whose illness has kept him off the bench at least one-third of the time since his March appointment says the same condition may affect whether he can serve if elected.

Sessions Court Judge David Norton said Thursday that an inherited, nonlife-threatening neurological illness that affects his motor skills but not his mental capacity has prevented him from serving and campaigning for much of the past four weeks.

If he does win the Aug. 2 election and retains his judgeship, Norton asks voters to trust his judgment of his own abilities as he works through treatment.

"If elected, I will not be able to serve immediately," Norton said in a statement posted on his website. "However, my name remains on the ballot and I want to see the election through, giving voters the right to decide who they would prefer to see in this very important position.'

In an interview, Norton said he would not sit on the bench if he is incapable of dealing with his illness.

"You can take all the medicines you want and sit on the bench, but it's not fair to the public to have somebody who's medicated sitting on the bench," he said.

He is awaiting further treatment that could resolve the condition, allowing him to serve, he said. If he is elected and the condition persists and interferes with his judicial duties, Norton said he would step down.

"If people want me to be the judge, then I think they should have the ability to vote for me," Norton said. "If people don't want to vote for me based on my not being available to serve or campaign, then that's their business."

The judge declined to disclose publicly the exact illness or detailed nature of treatment.

He said it was too late to remove his name from the August ballot when the neurological condition worsened in June.

The deadline for removing or changing candidate ballots for the upcoming election was April 12, seven days after candidates qualified, said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County administrator of elections.

Norton was appointed March 1 in a 7-1 Hamilton County Commission vote to fill the vacant seat of Judge Bob Moon, who died in January.

Mullis-Morgan said election rules require that, if a public official's elected term is filled by appointment, the position is then up for re-election during the next regular August election.

If Norton were to be elected and later step down, the commission would have the authority to appoint a replacement, who would serve the remainder of the term until the regularly scheduled August 2014 election.

General Sessions Court judges serve an eight-year term in the normal election cycle.

Norton has been off the bench for all or part of the day at least 30 times since March 6, the day he was officially sworn into the post, according to court records. In that period, there were about 90 days of court docket work for Sessions judges to attend.

By comparison, the other Sessions judges have been gone for a varying number of days or portions of days in the same period: Christie Sell — 10 full days, five partial days; Clarence Shattuck — 10 full days, four partial days; Ronald Durby — seven full days; David Bales — five full days.

These figures were determined through a record search of the special judge sign-in sheets, which record when elected judges have attorneys sit in during their absences.

There are more unrecorded absences for which records were not easily available, and the records themselves do not show the full picture.

For instance, they do not reflect times when Sessions judges sit in for each other. Because of constitutional rights concerns, local Sessions judges must place criminal dockets as the first priority, said Sell, so there may be instances when an elected judge sits for another Sessions judge in criminal cases, but must find a substitute for his or her assigned civil docket.

Such paperwork would reflect that the elected judge had been absent from the assigned docket, but would not reflect that judge had sat for another judge, nor that the originally assigned judge was absent.

Court rules requires records be kept for special judges but does not require a record when one elected Sessions judge sits for another appointed or elected judge, according to the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.

about Todd South...

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 ...

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