A Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge announced Friday he's taking medical leave, saying he returned to the bench "prematurely" while battling cancer for the past several months.
"In an effort to fulfill my public responsibility, I returned to the bench prematurely," Judge David E. Bales said in a statement. "I now know I need more time to recover. Therefore I have decided to take additional time off to rest and recuperate so I can plan to return to the bench with full vigor and strength to serve the citizens of Hamilton County."
Bales, who was appointed in 2005, missed at least 45 days on the bench since being diagnosed with cancer around October 2016. He never declared medical disability or requested a replacement judge to fill in for him, leaving the four other Sessions Court judges and a handful of volunteers to cover much of his slice of the county's 50,000 yearly cases.
Judge Clarence Shattuck told the Hamilton County Commission on Feb. 1 the strain had become difficult for some volunteers. The commission voted 9-0 to pay attorneys $70 an hour if they covered Bales' docket. In total, they set aside $72,341 for three months since a second judge, Lila Statom, would be in and out because of knee surgery.
Bales will continue to earn his $170,520 annual salary while on medical leave. Tennessee law says a judge's salary cannot be altered midterm.
"Whether they're off for six months or a year, you cannot take a judge off payroll unless they resign or retire," said Tim Townsend, an administrator in Davidson County who oversees 18 trial courts there.
Bales declined multiple requests to comment this week for this story. He heard cases earlier in the week before announcing his medical leave Friday.
A judge dealing with short-term illness typically asks for help among his colleagues first, Townsend said. Failing that, "you send a request to the Administrative Office of the Courts to ask them to designate a judge to come and cover while you're out."
The AOC, which oversees all Tennessee courts, did not receive a request from Bales in 2016 or 2017, spokeswoman Jill Frost said Friday morning. Bales met with his four colleagues around 10:30 a.m. Friday to discuss whether he should officially step down before the news was released around lunchtime.
There are only a few ways a judge can exit the bench: Medical disability, retirement or death.
Sessions Court Judge Mike Carter retired in 2005 before moving on to a career as a Republican representative in the state Legislature. Judge Bob Moon died of a heart attack in January 2012. County commissioners appointed a replacement in both situations: Bales took Carter's vacant seat; Gary Starnes moved into Moon's.
If a judge cites medical disability, however, like Ron Durby in October 2012, then state law says the governor chooses the replacement. In Durby's case, Gov. Bill Haslam picked Statom, a lead prosecutor in Hamilton County's General Sessions Court.
In that case, Bales must write a letter to Haslam, who would then select a replacement for the judge.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.