Appointed judges have edge in Hamilton County elections

Appointed judges have edge in Hamilton County elections

February 24th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto


Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey's last day will be April 30.

The Hamilton County Commission will appoint Bailey's replacement. Commissioners have said they plan to begin the process on April 1. The commission has not yet accepted applications, but each commissioner has received calls from multiple hopeful appointees, including lawyers Curtis Bowe, Robert Philyaw, Ron Powers and Juvenile Court Magistrate Troy McDougal.


Chancellor Frank Brown said he will not run for re-election in 2014. He has served on the bench since 1998.

The person appointed to replace Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey will have only a year on the bench before trying to win a full term in the 2014 election, but the appointee will carry a distinct advantage into next year's campaign.

Over the past four judicial elections, which span 32 years, only three incumbents in 56 local judicial races have lost, according to Times Free Press archives.

Only twice did a judge appointed before facing election lose the race.

Among the 15 sitting state or county judges in Hamilton County, seven were appointed to their positions before winning the next election.

The appointment that follows a judge's early exit from the bench isn't random. It is often the result of maneuvers behind the scenes long before a name appears on a ballot. The practice is widely acknowledged, but critics say it undermines the electoral process.

Reached by phone in Florida last week, retired Criminal Court Judge Douglas Meyer said that despite serious health problems throughout his last term, it was important for him to finish his time on the bench in 2006 and leave the seat for an open election.

"I believe in the people controlling the people, not the government controlling the people," Meyer said. "I think judges should be elected."

Meyer said he's observed changes in how judgeships are handled through elections.

"Now it's gotten to be the vogue, evidently, for people to run for re-election and then quit," he said. "That's just not right."


The trend in Hamilton County also holds elsewhere in Tennessee and across many states with judicial elections, according to Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick.

There are a number of reasons judges leave their posts before the term ends, Fitzpatrick said. Sometimes health problems arise or life goals change. But if leaving the job isn't due to an emergency, it is a deliberate choice.

"I think a lot of judges don't like elections that much, even ones that run in them," Fitzpatrick said.

There is an "appointment culture" among judges, he said. Often when judges were themselves appointed and they later decide to leave office, they'll leave with time on the term for someone else to be appointed.

Bailey was not appointed, and in fact defeated an appointee to win her judgeship. She is one of only two judges in recent elections to have done so.

She announced her resignation on Feb. 4. Her last day will be April 30. In her official release, she did not give specific reasons for stepping down.

Little research has been done into judge appointments at the county or state levels, but studies of appellate and state Supreme Court judgeships found that appointments played a part in more than half.

A 2006 study by the Center for State Courts noted that between 1964 and 2004, 52 percent of judges on state supreme courts in states that have elected judges were appointed by the governor.

"Previous research certainly confirms that interim appointments play a key role in placing many judges on the bench in elective states," the study's authors wrote.

Over the past 32 years in Hamilton County, three judges lost their bids for re-election. Seven retired at the end of their terms, one retired midterm, four stepped down for health reasons, four died while in office, one was appointed to the court of appeals and two resigned to return to private law practice.


Chancellor W. Frank Brown III will not seek another term in next year's election, leaving the seat up for grabs.

Though he didn't face an appointee, Brown's first run for chancellor faced similar political gamesmanship involved when judges step down early.

Brown did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story. Earlier, he told the Chattanooga Free Press that his predecessor, Chancellor Vann Owens, purposely delayed announcing his retirement to give his son, S. Bruce Owens, a chance to prepare and campaign for the seat. Brown defeated the younger Owens in the 1998 race.

Brown said at the time that "voters didn't appreciate someone trying to 'tilt the playing field.'"

General Sessions Court Judge Christie Mahn Sell won an open-seat election in 2006 to succeed Judge Richard Holcomb, who retired.

Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman won an open-seat election for Meyer's seat when Meyer retired the same year.

Steelman said last week that the opportunity to run for an open seat in that election is rare. Generally the incumbent has had time to show the public his or her performance on the bench and usually gains an advantage through the work they do, he said.

Meyer followed the example set by his predecessor on the bench. Judge Campbell Carden won election in 1958 when Raulston Schoolfield was impeached.

During Carden's first run for election in 1966, the local newspaper noted that, "Carden is the only court-of-record jurist at the courthouse who did not enter the judiciary through gubernatorial appointment."

Carden was re-elected and, despite health problems, finished his final term in 1982.

That's the spot Meyer won in an open election to start his Criminal Court career.

All of the local judgeships -- Circuit, Chancery, Criminal, General Sessions and Juvenile -- have eight-year terms. Sessions judgeships have been nonpartisan elections since 1997.


General Sessions Judge Gary Starnes won election in August 2012 against Hamilton County Commission appointee David Norton. The seat was up for election after the unexpected January death of Judge Bob Moon.

Starnes was one of 12 applicants for the job. Before interviews began, commissioners told the Times Free Press that Norton was the "early front-runner."

"I applied but I already knew it was a done deal," Starnes said.

Starnes was quick to compliment his fellow judges, appointed or elected. He praised the work of recently-appointed Sessions Judge Lila Statom.

Statom was appointed on Dec. 14, 2012, to fill the vacated seat of Judge Ronald Durby, who left the bench for health reasons in October 2012.

Starnes said that leaving the bench early for an unforeseen medical problem or valid personal reasons is understandable.

But he does not agree with planned early departures.

"If a judge steps aside so that a particular friend or favored person is to step into that position, then I'm against that," Starnes said. "I think everybody should go through an unbiased process."

The incumbency advantage an appointee gains could come from work on the bench but also likely arises from the work done to get the appointment in the first place.

Though the next Juvenile Court judge can't openly campaign with a political party, it doesn't mean there isn't lobbying going on before the appointment.

The Times Free Press broke news of Bailey's retirement on Feb. 1; she released her official statement on Feb. 4.

Over the weekend between the two dates, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he had received calls from five people interested in the position.


Still, a judgeship is unique among political offices. Leadership skills, name recognition and campaign management may be required to win a race for city council, county commission, state legislature or judgeship.

But along with those abilities, a judge also must know the law and often needs the confidence of attorneys in the court who will challenge the new jurist on the law. Elected judges decide issues as personal as divorce, custody and the amount of time a person will spend in prison.

"A judgeship, by its nature, is not as much a political position," Steelman said. "I ran for the judgeship because of the conviction I have about the law. ... It's not really a politically motivated step toward something else."