Gov. Bill Haslam announced Wednesday his temporary replacement to the Hamilton County General Sessions Court.
His appointment, Alex McVeagh, 31, said he plans to take the bench May 1 and clear up some of the clogged dockets General Sessions Judge David Bales left behind while fighting cancer in 2016.
"I plan to meet here very soon with Judge Bales, who graciously offered to meet with me and go through his procedures, his dockets, his forms," McVeagh said. "This is his seat. I'm humbled to be able to keep it warm for him."
Bales stepped off the bench in October 2016 after he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radiation and chemotherapy. He never declared medical disability until late March, missing at least 45 days on the bench and causing his four colleagues and a handful of volunteer attorneys to cover his share of the 50,000 yearly cases that start in General Sessions Court. Because of the strain it was putting on the courts, Hamilton County commissioners voted Feb. 1 to put aside $70,000 for attorneys who agreed to cover a docket.
Bales, who will continue to earn his $170,520 yearly salary on disability, told Haslam in a March 28 letter he intends to return to the bench "as soon as possible." Haslam began considering the appointment immediately after he received the request, press secretary Jennifer Donnals wrote in an email.
It's unclear how many people pursued the appointment, however, because there is no formal application process for such a scenario. When a General Sessions Court judge dies or retires, the Hamilton County Commission picks the replacement. But when a judge declares temporary disability, state law gives the governor the singular discretion to select a qualified successor. Donnals said Haslam didn't request any formal applications for the position and couldn't say how many people were interested.
"I am pleased to appoint Alex McVeagh and appreciate his willingness to serve as special judge," Haslam said in an official statement Wednesday. "His experience in both private practice and state government will serve Hamilton County well."
McVeagh, who grew up in Lafeyette, La., accepted a job at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel P.C., while finishing law school at Vanderbilt University in 2013. He has since gotten involved in several professional organizations, including service on the boards of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, the Tennessee Bar Association Young Lawyer Division, and YMCA's Youth Community Action Program.
Though his background is primarily in municipal law, bankruptcy and other civil litigation, McVeagh said Wednesday he has taken some criminal cases in General Sessions and U.S. District Court. Governent records show McVeagh led one criminal case in Chattanooga's federal court and numerous bankruptcy cases in Tennessee and Georgia. McVeagh said he also became familiar with criminal procedure through a public defender's conference and Senate Judiciary Committee that reviewed criminal laws before he started at Chambliss.
"It's not your typical defense or DA practice, but I certainly have familiarity with the criminal code," McVeagh said. "I am the one attorney at Chambliss who handles all of the state criminal charges. If it's marijuana possession on a family member of one of our clients, if there's a domestic issue that goes to Criminal Court — I'm the person who dealt with Sessions criminal as well."
Haslam appointed a different Chambliss attorney, Tom Greenholtz, to a vacant Criminal Court seat in September 2015. He now oversees the county's Drug Court and recently developed a new scheduling order to keep cases running efficiently.
"Regardless of what I've ever worked with Alex on, he has always excelled," said Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party who met McVeagh when he interned for the GOP in 2008. Smith owns River's Edge Alliance, a consulting firm, and also managed Greenholtz's 2016 campaign for the judgeship against two other attorneys, prosecutor Boyd Patterson and Deputy Public Defender Mike Little.
"He's very capable and very adaptable and I think he's a great student and trusted attorney," Smith said. "He will be perfect for such a temporary appointment, and people will get to know his competence."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.