Free Press picks for Hamilton County's General Sessions Court judge, Criminal Court clerk

Free Press picks for Hamilton County's General Sessions Court judge, Criminal Court clerk

July 25th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Christie Mahn Sell

Christie Mahn Sell

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Session judge: Sell is doing important work on, off bench

General Sessions Court Judge Christie Mahn Sell is so esteemed by her colleagues and the judicial community that the worst overall grade her opponent in the upcoming Aug. 7 Hamilton County general election could give her is "a solid 'B'."

We heartily endorse her bid for a second term over challenger Rex Sparks and the yeoman's job she is doing -- off the clock -- to create a family justice center and a mental health court. Already during her tenure on the bench, she has created a long-needed domestic violence court.

Though Sell "never anticipated running for office," she says she loves what she does and the fact "I can help people."

Although she is in her first term, a March Chattanooga Bar Association poll for sitting General Sessions judges gave her the highest mark, a 99.15 percent retention rating, among the five jurists.

Sell was the first woman elected a General Sessions Court judge in Hamilton County.

Even more impressive, though, is the work she has put in to create, first, the domestic violence court and, currently, the family justice center and mental health court.

Before becoming judge, Sell, as a partner with the law firm of Shumaker, Witt Gaither & Whitaker, had been involved in domestic violence cases and was a Tennessee Supreme Court-approved mediator in family cases.

Today, domestic violence cases are grouped together on Monday, and domestic violence victims are provided "a wealth of resources," she said.

A family justice center, in addition, would house a team of professionals who work together, under one roof, to provide coordinated services to victims of family violence. The city already has been awarded a three-year federal grant for a site coordinator, who would help pull together and coordinate the pieces that would make the center a reality.

Sell is hoping to create a mental health court that would be similar to the domestic violence court and is examining "different models" in determining how to best fashion it. Such a court, she said, would help identify mentally ill defendants and move them into the court more quickly.

Currently, she said, it costs jails seven times more to house a mentally ill prisoner than one who is not mentally ill, and such a court "could reduce costs."

Sparks, who termed himself "more than qualified" with the experience of "everything you can do" in civil and criminal law, including more than nine years in the Hamilton County District Attorney's office, says he'd be a judge "for the people because I'm of the people" and that he'd be a judge "for all of the people all of the time."

He faults Sell for "skating out" -- being off the bench more than most judges -- but it turns out the times she's been off the bench, where special judges sit in, she's been educating the public, speaking about the court or working to create the needed new court services for the public.

We strongly endorse her re-election.

Gwen Tidwell

Gwen Tidwell

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Criminal Court clerk: Tidwell should be retained for her hard work

For all intents and purposes, Gwen Tidwell crafted and is continuing to create the modern, Internet-era Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk's office.

For that innovation and for her sincere desire to continue that modernization for the good of the courts and the public, we endorse her election over state Rep. Vince Dean, who is by all rights a well-thought-of legislator, former East Ridge mayor and former policeman.

Under Tidwell's 20-year tenure, she worked with county personnel to create the computer program that contains the criminal records of all those charged with traffic or criminal offenses in criminal courts, supervised the implementation of a system that would allow the office to accept payments by credit and debit cards, had computers placed where the general public could access the court's criminal history data, made the electronic images of arrest reports available online, is working to have all imaged documents available online, and is working to have records available through Smartphones and iPads.

Further, she created a branch office that's open 24 hours in the jail that allows police to complete paperwork on detainees there instead of having to take them to the clerk's office in the courthouse to complete the paperwork and then back to the jail for booking. That jail office makes the work safer for all and more expedient.

Tidwell also established a collections division in 1995 to increase the payment of fines and court costs, something that oddly had never been done in the office. Those fees now pay for the salaries of the office's personnel and allow the office to return additional money -- hundreds of thousands of dollars some years -- to the county.

Since early 2013, the office also has used two collection agencies in an attempt to get even more of what's owed, but she says some of the monies are ultimately not collectible from prisoners, prisoner families and people who have moved out of state.

"We're never, ever going to collect 100 percent," Tidwell says.

Although Dean says the office did not attempt to collect the funds -- which total at least $50 million -- until he announced he would run for Criminal Court clerk in November 2013, she says the office actually was discussing it at least a year earlier.

Tidwell admits she "dragged her feet" on using collecting agencies, but she says she didn't want the county to lose the nearly 20 percent of each person's fine that goes to the collection agency.

Dean said in a news release Thursday that local attorneys want to have affidavits of complaints (arrest reports), indictments and motions from the office available electronically.

However, Tidwell says those files are already available electronically to public court officials and that private attorneys can obtain through email what is available from the clerk's office. She says her office is working to have all that can be public made available electronically but is a slave to county programmers' schedules.

Dean has suggested other problems with the office -- a dearth of meth cases listed on a drug registry, "inequities" in the staff pay scale, the clerk's absences, the attentiveness of personnel and "boxes of files" laying around -- but all appear to have little or no basis in fact or have legitimate explanations.

The challenger, a Republican who says he doesn't wear his partisanship on his sleeve, says he's familiar with the clerk's office from his years in law enforcement and would bring to it administrative experience from his years as East Ridge councilman, mayor and four-plus terms in the legislature, including his chairmanship of the $1.8 billion House Transportation Committee.

The incumbent, a Democrat and an attorney, says the office should be nonpartisan. Yet, she says "you can't just walk into the office and know what you're doing. You can't put a dollar sign on experience."

Despite Dean's sound background and intentions, we believe Tidwell is the best bet for moving this important office forward.