Ten magistrate hopefuls make their pitches to Hamilton County Commission

Ten magistrate hopefuls make their pitches to Hamilton County Commission

May 24th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioner Jim Fields

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Ten candidates for two judicial commissioner positions made their pitches Wednesday to Hamilton County commissioners.

Four judicial commissioners, or magistrates, work at the Hamilton County Jail setting bonds and signing search warrants. The county commission set up the program in the early 1990s in hopes of easing jail overcrowding. Magistrates are appointed to one-year terms, with two magistrates being named in the spring and two in the fall.

The candidates interviewed Wednesday are applying for the spring appointments. Commissioners will vote from the list at their next Wednesday meeting.

Until earlier this year, magistrates earned around $65,000, with a $5,000 bump for the chief magistrate. But after a state ruling last year that magistrates could not practice law on the side, county commissioners voted to boost the pay over four years to match the $92,000 salary of other judges.

As commissioners hoped, that sparked a flood of new interest in the positions. The body last week discussed a proposal to hire only one chief magistrate and fill in with part-timers. The commission's Security and Corrections Committee decided against the idea after current magistrates, judges and District Attorney Neal Pinkston objected.

Two candidates are incumbents. The terms of Chief Magistrate Randy Russell and Brandy Spurgin-Floyd technically expired at the end of April, but commissioners extended them while it sought new applicants.

Russell said he was initially appointed in October 2010 and counts it as an accomplishment he has trained five new magistrates during his five years as chief magistrate.

"It's more than just procedure and policy, you've got to look over their shoulders and make sure their decisions are appropriate," Russell told commissioners. He also organized a statewide conference for judicial commissioners in 2016 and worked with state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, to get legislation passed forbidding child abusers from contacting their victims.

Commissioners Greg Martin and Joe Graham grilled Russell about why he had not been providing them with required quarterly reports on magistrates' activities and hours. Martin has made the point repeatedly in recent weeks that commissioners can't exercise oversight without information.

Russell said he'd turned in a report in 2013, but no one had called him since then asking for reports.

"That was my mistake. I apologize. It just didn't occur to me," Russell said.

Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks said, "I'm hoping we're on a schedule now to where we know our chief magistrate gives us a report."

Graham added pointedly that if Russell is "fortunate enough" to be retained as chief magistrate, "you don't wait on us to request it."

Spurgin-Floyd also is seeking reappointment after 18 months and said she would be interested in the chief magistrate position. The Trenton, Ga., native had a criminal defense practice in Chattanooga but gave it up after the state ruling, she said.

Spurgin-Floyd surprised county commissioners by saying the four magistrates cover the jail 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Commissioners said when the program was set up, magistrates were scheduled just to work nights and weekends when no General Sessions Court judges were on the bench.

"Mr. Chairman, this goes back to the need to get a report," Martin said to Fairbanks.

Commissioners questioned the candidates closely on their knowledge of bail laws and requirements for search and arrest warrants. They made sure each one knew the job requires night, weekend and holiday work.

The other candidates interviewed were:

» Stuart Brown, who said he worked on Wall Street as a businessman and at the Securities and Exchange Commission before opening a legal practice. He said he has practiced criminal law exclusively since 2000 and is experienced with bond law and search warrants. Brown said he applied for the magistrate job because he wants to work less than the 50 to 60 hours a week he puts in now and spend more time with his family.

» Jackson Case, a Chattanooga native who practiced criminal law in Tennessee before becoming a magistrate in a multicounty judicial system based in Abingdon, Virginia. He said that work has made him fully familiar with warrants and bonds. He is interested in the local magistrate position because he wants to get back to his family here.

» J. Estes Cocke, an attorney since 1974 who practiced here with legendary defense attorney Leroy Phillips before setting up his own practice. Commissioner Jim Fields noted that Cocke was listed as a member of the panel that set up Hamilton County's judicial commissioner program decades ago.

Cocke said he took a detour in 2000 to work in private industry, setting up a human resources department for a large business. But the company was sold last year and Cocke was let go, he said.

"I feel like I've got some good years left in me, and I'm not ready to retire," he said.

» Bob Davis, a former magistrate and veteran attorney in multiple areas including business and criminal practice. Davis said he worked as a magistrate from 2009-11, and again in 2012-13. He said he lost the position when he angered a former county commissioner by refusing to sign an arrest warrant for an officer out of his jurisdiction.

"Can one person get rid of a magistrate?" Martin asked.

"One person who has four friends, yeah," Davis replied.

Davis said he's already reduced his practice to care for his ailing wife and added, "I'm willing to do this job."

» Kimberly Greuter, a Chattanooga native who practices workers' compensation law but said, "That is not my dream."

She fell in love with criminal law while covering courts for the Times Free Press years ago, and worked for the public defender's office in law school. Greuter also has a master's degree in business administration, which she said helps her when she handles workers' compensation cases in hearings or arbitration.

She acknowledged she has little criminal law background but said she would do the work to become competent.

"This is my opportunity to serve the government and serve the city and county that I love," she said.

» Lorrie Miller, who has been practicing criminal law for 20 years and said she has extensive knowledge of bonds and search warrants. Miller said she works at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute twice a month, representing people facing emergency involuntary hospitalization, and frequently serves as a special judge in Sessions Court.

Miller said she has the training, judgment and temperament for the job, and she had a list of suggested improvements ranging from better communication among magistrates, courts and police to consistency in policy and procedures among the magistrates. She emphasized she would be "absolutely on top of keeping you in the loop on what's going on."

» Blake Murchison, another Chattanooga native who served in the public defender's office before opening his own criminal practice, which he called "my passion." Murchison said that experience will help him properly set bonds and help ensure search and arrest warrants are properly drawn.

"I understand the importance of that job," he said.

» Patricia Best Vital, who has 25 years of civil law experience. Vital also acknowledged a lack of experience in criminal law but said she feels fully able to get up to speed. Asked why she would give up an established practice, she said she is reassessing her life and direction after being widowed last year.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.