published Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge candidates' experience varies

JUDICIAL CANDIDATE FORUM

• What: The Chattanooga Bar Association and the Chattanooga Times Free Press are sponsoring a forum for candidates running for General Sessions Court judge, Division 5.

• Candidates: Joe DeGaetano, Valerie Epstein, Yolanda Mitchell, David Norton, Ron Powers, Gary Starnes and Patricia Best Vital.

• When: 6:30 p.m. today; doors open at 5:30 p.m.

• Where: UTC University Center auditorium.

• To ask a question: Email to news@timesfreepress.com and put "judicial forum" in the subject line.

The seven candidates for the Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge position vacated by Judge Bob Moon's death earlier this year have varied levels of criminal law experience.

All seven candidates are either attorneys or judges and three-fourths of cases filed in Sessions Court are criminal cases, according to the county criminal and civil court clerks.

Local, longtime criminal defense attorneys Hank Hill and Rich Heinsman, who are not candidates for the judgeship, said a background in criminal law is crucial to the Sessions Court judge position.

"A sessions court judgeship is not the place where you learn criminal law," Hill said.

Heinsman, who hosted some of the judge candidates at a recent meeting of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said "it would be best if [candidates] had prosecution and defense experience."

"I heard a judicial candidate say it's not rocket science and I think it is rocket science," Heinsman said. "The decisions on a bond amount or consequences on a failed drug screen can't be knee-jerk reactions."

Candidate Ron Powers said he has represented defendants in criminal cases and also helped direct clients in civil cases to state and federal prosecutors when criminal charges were warranted in the case.

Powers said each case and defendant must be taken individually but that the sessions judgeship can be effective if repeat offenders are made to serve jail time.

"Too many times [repeat offenders] leave [court] not sentenced to any time in jail, and that's wrong," he said.

Both Hill and Heinsman were critical of any judge candidate's push for more jail time.

"[Jail time] is certainly part of justice, but there's a lot of other tools and a lot of other objectives than punishments," Heinsman said.

Hill cited the often near-capacity population at the jail and costs to taxpayers for housing overflow inmates in Silverdale Correctional Facility.

"People need to do more jail time?" Hill said. "Physically, realistically you can't do it."

Powers said the judge's job is to apply the law and the jail population is for the sheriff and county officials to handle.

Candidate Yolanda Mitchell worked for a decade as an assistant district attorney in Hamilton County, four of those years as the lead child abuse prosecutor. In her private practice, she's represented defendants in criminal cases and served as a Hamilton County magistrate for four years, setting bonds for criminal defendants and signing search warrants for police.

"You must evaluate and weigh the evidence and know what sentence is appropriate," Mitchell said.

Sessions judges have the authority to sentence in misdemeanor cases and, on some charges, also have latitude with alternative sentencing such as community service and probation. Many of the sentencing parameters and fines for such charges are written into state law.

Candidate Joe DeGaetano also touted his all-around criminal law experience. He said he prosecuted cases under supervision as a third-year law student, researched and advised judges for a federal appeals court as a law clerk and has represented defendants in federal criminal cases.

"My experience, in part, is useful because I have essentially been on all three sides of it," he said.

Candidate Gary Starnes said he's represented defendants in criminal cases such as DUI and domestic assault but has not tried criminal cases before a jury.

"If you know the law, then you know how to apply the law," he said.

Candidate Valerie Epstein said she had limited criminal experience but that the work as a judge requires an open mind and an ability to consider cases individually.

Candidate Patricia Best Vital said she has no criminal law experience but said "the Sessions Court judges there now did not have that kind of experience."

Judge Ronald Durby worked in the Chancery Court, Judge Christie Mahn Sell worked primarily in civil law and Judge David Bales ran hair salons, she said.

Interim Sessions Judge David Norton was unavailable for comment because of illness.

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or tsouth@timesfreepress.com.

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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