Most Hamilton County commissioners say they will be colorblind while selecting a Juvenile Court judge to replace Suzanne Bailey - but some say race might be important in a court that serves at-risk youths.
Bailey announced this month she would retire on April 30. Commissioners will appoint a new judge to finish Bailey's term, which ends December 2014.
Juvenile Court deals with juvenile criminal offenses, but it also handles child depravation and neglect, truancy, runaway children and other social issues involving minors.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, one of two black commissioners, said he wouldn't make his appointment based solely on race, but he alluded to the importance of a candidate "understanding the population served by Juvenile Court."
U.S. census records show African-Americans make up 20 percent of Hamilton County's population. But Juvenile Court records show African-American youths accounted for a little over half of the cases disposed -- a legal term for completed -- in 2011.
According to Juvenile Court records, 1,945, or 51 percent, of the cases concluded in 2011 involved African-American youths. In the same year, 1,794 cases, or 47 percent, involved white juveniles, with other ethnic groups or data entry errors making up the remaining 2 percent.
Four lawyers have solicited commissioners for the appointment. Three of the potential candidates, lawyers Ron Powers, Robert Philyaw and Juvenile Court Magistrate Troy McDougal, are white. A fourth, lawyer Curtis Bowe, is black.
Mackey said he wants the person who's going to be the most effective.
"I'm going to look at what population is served by this court and see who has the best ability to understand that population," Mackey said.
But he also said it was time for diversity in the judiciary.
"What does that say about the judiciary if you don't have a bench that represents the whole population?" Mackey said. "If people look at us, internationally, and they see the old patterns continue to exist, I think that discourages the international population and other progressive people from considering this area."
Commissioner Greg Beck, who also is black, said demographics might play an enormous role in Juvenile Court.
"It's critical that you understand that population and the demographics ... that make up Hamilton County. I also want someone who's got experience with Juvenile Court. But not necessarily one who's in there now," Beck said.
Beck said Tuesday he would not throw his support behind any candidate until he's seen all the applicants.
"I'm staying noncommittal, but I'm looking forward to the process getting started," Beck said.
Last week, Beck said he was more concerned with the way the process would be handled than with the proposed timetable for appointments. But Tuesday he said it should be started sooner than April 1.
Commissioners Chester Bankston, Larry Henry and Fred Skillern, all of whom are white, said Thursday skin color will not influence their decision-making, and they were more interested in the candidates' qualifications.
"I'm going to commit to one thing: I'm going to appoint the one person who's right for the job," Skillern said. "I'm not going to let [race] be a factor."
Commissioner Tim Boyd, also white, said race was not important for him and again noted his desire to see a judge who cuts recidivism and crime.
"I'm looking for the right fit in the position. That's the key thing. I'm looking to have that judge in Juvenile Court to coordinate with other courts, the sheriff's office and the gang task force," Boyd said. "I want someone who will create policy to reduce repeat offenders."
For Commissioner Joe Graham, who is white, appointing a minority would be a good move for the county, but it's not the most important criteria.
"I want the best person for the job I can possibly find. We are talking about children's lives. We're talking about turning these children around," Graham said. "If it's a minority who's best for the job, that's a bonus for me. But I'm looking for the best possible judge -- regardless of race, gender, shape, size or whatever."
Three black judges, Benny Harris, Walter Williams and John Millican, have served in Chattanooga City Court, and Judge Curtis Collier, who is black, now serves in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
But no modern county judgeship -- elected or appointed -- has been held by a non-Caucasian.
Commissioner Jim Fields, who is white, said who sits on the bench will -- and should -- be up to Hamilton County residents.
"They're all elected positions, and it's all up the voters. We're picking someone for a year," Fields said.