Hamilton County eyes court candidates

Hamilton County eyes court candidates

March 1st, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

David Norton

David Norton

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The position left by the death of General Sessions Judge Bob Moon should be filled today by Hamilton County commissioners.

Though some on the commission mentioned Assistant County Attorney and Soddy-Daisy Municipal Judge David Norton as the frontrunner for Moon's replacement even before the 12-applicant field was set, several say they aren't sure how today's vote will line up.

The board has nine commissioners, making five votes the magic number for the appointment. Commissioners will meet this morning at 9:30 a.m. to decide.

"I don't know how the nominations are going to fall," said Commission Chairman Larry Henry. "We've got some candidates who stand head and shoulders above others."

Moon died in late January, creating a vacancy in one of five Hamilton County General Sessions courtrooms. By law, county commissioners are required to appoint a replacement, then a nonpartisan special election will be held in August for the remainder of Moon's eight-year term.

Some commissioners and applicants said they would support attorney Bryan Hoss, one of the candidates who has pledged to hold the position as a caretaker -- someone who won't run in the special election.

"It would take five votes to say that," Commissioner Greg Beck said. "I would vote for it if somebody brought it up."

Hoss said judgeships are unique because attorneys must practice in front of a person they might campaign against politically.

"I guess, as an attorney, you're obviously very hesitant to go out and campaign for another judicial candidate if it's against a sitting judge," Hoss said.

Candidates Rob Philyaw and Ron Powers also supported a move to appoint Hoss.

"A caretaker who is qualified to serve as judge is the best alternative," Powers said.

Commissioner Tim Boyd said he wished the commission could always appoint a caretaker for a vacancy.

"I feel like a caretaker would be better on any appointment, I wish it was kind of a default situation," Boyd said. "That said, that's not what's going to happen."

Five lawyers already have picked up petitions for the August election, including Powers, Philyaw, Patricia Vital, Gary Starnes and Valerie Epstein.

Vital said she's exercising due diligence by not filing her papers until after commissioners make their decision Thursday.

"I have been holding off for that," Vital said.

Some see incumbency, even if only for five months, as a political advantage.

"I hope that the public will not take the appointment by the County Commission to mean that the person is the obvious person to be sessions court judge," Powers said.

Philyaw said it might actually be the opposite.

"If I'm serving as the judge for the next five months, I can't campaign as much," he said.

The replacement process, which began in early February, involved a 10-day application period and two weeks of one-on-one interviews. Most commissioners said they interviewed all 12 candidates.

"I got everybody that I intended to interview," Commissioner Joe Graham said.

General Sessions judges make about $156,000 a year and hear a variety of civil and criminal matters in thousands of cases a year.

"I always think in terms of experience and demeanor," Beck said. "I have to think in terms of those 70 percent of African- Americans who are going to face this judge."