It can be rare in today's political environment to have even one qualified, worthy candidate running for a seat. It may be unique in America today to have seven candidates contending for the same post who all bring enough knowledge and experience to make a legitimate claim for the position.
Joe DeGaetano, Valerie Epstein, Yolanda Echols Mitchell, David Norton, Ron Powers, Gary Starnes and Patricia Best Vital constitute the crowded field vying to fill the Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge's seat recently held by the late Bob Moon.
The role of the General Sessions Court judge is unusual. A total of five judges try both criminal and civil cases about issues ranging from domestic violence to unemployment benefits. If you've ever seen "Judge Judy," then you've seen examples of the types of cases on the General Sessions docket.
If hearing cases were the extent of the position, picking the name of one of the seven quality candidates out of a hat would suffice. However, this race is about more than filling a seat. It is about bringing respectability to a court that has its well-deserved critics throughout Hamilton County.
Too often, General Sessions judges treat the court as a part-time job with a $156,792 salary. It is not uncommon for judges to tear through cases -- or simply pass them to another day -- and leave the courtroom shortly after lunch. Good luck even finding a General Sessions judge at 600 Market St. at all on a sunny Friday.
Because this lackadaisical attitude has become legendary, earning the confidence of the community in the General Sessions Court is a necessary job requirement for the court's next judge.
Of all the candidates in this race, this page believes that Gary Starnes is the best equipped to both perform admirably behind the bench and win back the public's faith in the General Sessions Court. For this reason, we endorse Gary Starnes for General Sessions Court judge.
Starnes presents a clear and realistic vision for how the court can improve. His ideas to implement common-sense technology, such as installing a digital recording system in the courtroom and making judges' case files available electronically, is both reasonable and long overdue.
Third-shift police officers will appreciate his desire to schedule hearings in a way that will prevent them from having to sit in a courtroom all day after working all night.
Starnes' commitment to putting in the hours needed to do the job effectively is exactly what this court needs. After seeing the long days and shoe leather he has put forth in the campaign, this page is convinced that he has the vitality and energy this court has been missing.
After Moon's death, Soddy-Daisy city judge David Norton was appointed to fill the vacancy on an interim basis. Norton has been an exemplary judge for the better part of three decades. Since his appointment, however, Norton has missed a number of days due to a health issue that is not life-threatening and does not impact his abilities as a judge. While Norton's experience behind the bench is unsurpassed in this race, the prospect of electing a judge who may be unavailable for some time is, unfortunately, cause for concern.
Each of the other candidates also presents a strong case for election. Epstein, for example, offers a particularly informed perspective, having served as in-house counsel for a business, as well as an attorney at a plaintiffs' firm and a defendants' firm. Powers is firmly committed to making General Sessions Court harsher on repeat offenders. No one has a richer background in criminal law than Echols Mitchell.
Joe DeGaetano particularly impressed us. While lacking the experience of Starnes or Norton, his intellect and involvement in the community are second to none. Chattanooga is a better place because of DeGaetano and it is our hope that his (difficult to spell, but fun to say) name is on many more ballots in the future.
While there may be no bad choice in the packed field for General Sessions Court judge, Gary Starnes stands out as the most deserving candidate for your vote on Aug. 2.