Judge Suzanne Bailey leaves legacy of caring, compassion in Juvenile Court

Judge Suzanne Bailey leaves legacy of caring, compassion in Juvenile Court

April 30th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Retiring Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey, center, smiles alongside her brother, Maury County Mayor James Bailey, left, and nephew, General Sessions Judge Lee Bailey, second from left. New Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw, right, enjoys the exchange as others gather at the East Third Street courts building for the retirement ceremony Monday.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

The crowd inside Hamilton County Juvenile Court swelled to more than 75 people Monday afternoon.

They turned out to honor a woman who has presided over this court over the past 23 years and seen changes few anticipated.

As retiring Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey shook hands and posed for pictures on her next-to-last day on the job, a colorful symbol of her work stood not 20 feet away.

Waist-high walls separate the court waiting area from the "Kidde Corner," a place decorated with book covers such as Dr. Seuss, Curious George and the Berenstain Bears.

It's exactly what the judge has strived for in all her programs all her years with the court -- something practical that also helps children.

It was finished before her retirement.

Bailey took the bench as the first elected female judge for Hamilton County in 1990. She had spent more than a decade either practicing as a lawyer in the court or serving as a magistrate before winning the post.

At that point she had seen changes, and more were headed her way.

"[Bailey] has presided over a period of time that's seen the greatest change in the structure of our families and culture impacting our families in our nation's history," said Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler.

Behler started working with the court at about the same time Bailey won office. He did work with Bethel Bible Village, a children's home in Hixson.

He said what many others echoed, that Bailey's passion for the near-24/7 job never waned.

When she began working in Juvenile Court as a lawyer in the mid-1970s, some of the work for indigent children wasn't paid for by the state. But most of the cases were similar, she said.

There was a lot of vandalism, truancy, shoplifting and bicycle theft.

It was in the mid- to late 1980s when some of the juvenile offenders got more sophisticated and started stealing cars in groups.

Much of that was driven by adults who coordinated the groups.

Then in the 1990s, she said, crack cocaine hit the area hard, bringing more assaults, weapons charges and the street gang problem that persists.

But along the way, supporters say, Bailey worked with volunteers, churches, social service groups and others to begin creative programs aimed at reaching young people as early as possible.

"I think no matter how you slice it up she's leaving behind a legacy of children who have actually been helped through the court," said Sam Mairs, Juvenile Court administrator.

Mairs came to work at the court about 20 years ago in a temporary job while he waited on an opening at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

But something about the place grabbed his attention. And a lot of that had to do with Bailey, he said.

"It was one of the first places that I'd ever been where you were required to actually do your job to the best of your ability," he said. "People actually believed in what they were doing."

While on the bench, Bailey's caseload and the court has grown exponentially.

When she started, Bailey, a full-time court referee and one part-time court referee heard cases. For a time a double-wide trailer served as home of the child support courtroom.

Today there is a Juvenile Court judge and six full-time court referees, now called magistrates.

Over the years, a group of volunteers and people in the community have helped sustain programs that assist juveniles whether they're in court as crime victims or criminal defendants.

Bailey recalled an episode in which an older woman came to the court and asked what she could do to help. The woman offered $5 she had on her.

The judge told her that she saw a lot of poor mothers who could use diapers.

Before long, the judge said, the woman had begun a "diaper ministry" in the courthouse with closets full of donated diapers.

"I don't care what it is, how somebody wants to help, how little or how big. Find a way for them to help right then," she said. "Because that empowers them to know that they're making a difference."

Bailey is stepping down for personal reasons before her term ends next year. The Hamilton County Commission recently appointed Rob Philyaw to finish her term.

He will have to win re-election in August 2014 to retain the seat.