Longtime legal colleagues as well as recent rivals for a federal judgeship say Chattanooga Chief of Staff Travis McDonough is qualified for the spot. But some opponents in a recent city legal battle question the likely nominee's future fairness.
Fellow attorneys at the Miller & Martin law firm said this week that news of McDonough being picked for a presidential nomination to the U.S. District judge seat here isn't surprising.
"Travis is very bright, very hardworking, very committed," said Roger Dickson, who was a federal magistrate here from 1979 to 1985 before leaving the bench to return to private practice.
Dickson encountered McDonough, 42, when the junior lawyer joined the firm in 1997. McDonough worked with Dickson on multiple federal lawsuits and later rose to head the firm's litigation department.
Miller & Martin was also the home law firm of U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar. Edgar took senior status in 2005 and later moved to Michigan, where he still hears some cases. Sitting U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice also worked for the firm before being appointed U.S. attorney here and then federal judge in 2005.
Two other people whose names were mentioned for the judgeship also spoke highly of McDonough's qualifications.
"I think the White House has made an excellent selection and Travis will do an outstanding job," said Lee Davis, who also was being considered for the position, according to sources knowledgeable about the process.
Leah Gerbitz, a former colleague at Miller & Martin for a dozen years, said McDonough is "an excellent lawyer who has that enviable combination of a key intellect and 'street smarts.'"
Gerbitz was also named by multiple sources as an interested candidate for the judge spot. Neither she nor Davis would comment on their status as potential nominees.
Miller & Martin Chairman Jim Haley said McDonough is "analytical" and a "quick study" who was often sought out for courtroom advice by other lawyers at the firm.
"I think he's a very fair person and objective," Haley said. "And he has a very good temperament."
As Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff, McDonough headed a task force assigned to reduce a growing liability by the city. The task force kept the employees' defined benefits but cut some benefits. Retired police and firefighters have sued in federal court over those cuts.
Local retired firefighter Darrell Burt, who would be affected by pension negotiations between firefighters and the city, called McDonough "brash and hateful" in his experience.
"The way that he talked to other retired guys who voiced their opinions was awful," Burt said. "He ran roughshod over the union."
Burt claims McDonough warned active employees not to speak out either to media or online about their opinions of the pension reform.
April Eidson, wife of recently retired Chattanooga Assistant Police Chief Kirk Eidson and founder of the local Citizens Government Watch Group, said that McDonough's dealings in the pension suit and work for the city call into question his objectivity in future federal lawsuits involving the city.
"I have grave concern about his objectivity where numerous city of Chattanooga employment cases are heard," she said.
McDonough declined to comment to the Times Free Press.
But Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge 22 President Sean O'Brien had a different view on the pension negotiations, in which he was closely involved.
"My experience with (McDonough) through not only the pension process but others was nothing short of positive and productive," O'Brien said. "People who have a negative comment need to look at themselves first."
O'Brien pointed out that McDonough was working as the mayor's chief of staff and at times he would have to be harsh, "but that's all part of the negotiating process."
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.