Fairness for Sessions Court

Fairness for Sessions Court

February 4th, 2012 in Opinion Times

County Commissioners moved with appropriate speed Wednesday to seek a place on the August ballot for election of an interim Sessions Court judge. The position, left vacant last week by the untimely death of Judge Bob Moon, needs to be filled for the next two years until the current eight-year judicial term expires in 2014.

Now commissioners need to select a caretaker judge to fill the seat until a newly elected judge takes office in September for the interim term. In doing so, they should follow a few sensible criteria to avoid giving political cronies and friends an unfair advantage in the August election, and, further, in the 2014 election for a full-term judge.

One criteria is to name a caretaker who promises not to seek the seat in August. In fact, commissioners easily could wait until the April 5 filing deadline for August candidates has passed to ensure that a short-term caretaker will not campaign for the seat.

That would serve voters well, and uphold the spirit of an impartial judiciary by honoring the state's guiding principle of nonpartisan elections for judges. Avoiding selection of a politically ambitious caretaker also would help keep politics off the bench and out of the court. That's especially critical in Sessions Court, which has been long been subject to too much overt and covert politics.

Another criteria concerns political transparency and public meetings. Commission chairman Jim Henry is already arguing, again, for secrecy. He contends that county commissioners should be able to interview applicants for the caretaker job in private -- as they wrongly did to fill an empty county commission seat.

That's wrong. First, it suggests that the commission, or Henry himself, wants to vet and appoint a caretaker who intends to run for the August election. Secondly, it incorrectly suggests that there's something about judicial conduct and relevant legal background that should be off the record and out of public view.

Look, a judgeship in Sessions Court is a very public role. As the main judicial arena for traffic accidents and tickets, DUI's, minor civil disputes, and misdemeanor offenses, Sessions Court is as close to the legal system as most citizens will ever get. It's the peoples' court, in the broadest sense of the term. Taxpayers, moreover, pay the judges $156,000 a year, plus generous benefits, for what too many Sessions judges have treated as a cushy, practically part-time job. To confirm that, see which judges are in their offices after 3 o'clock most days --or after lunch on Fridays.

Voters and taxpayers across the county have a deeply vested interest in candidates for one of the five Sessions Court judgeships. County commissioners should not keep private any interviews with potential candidates for a judgeship to be awarded by county commissioners, and possibly given a leg up in the August election.

That's insider politics. It goes against the public interest, and treats voters like it's not their public interest, and their public right, to know what's happening with candidates, or how they conduct themselves when the public is watching. Henry should be ashamed of himself for thinking otherwise. It's a blatant insult. The public deserves better, especially for Sessions Court.

As for other criteria, Sessions Court needs judges who know and respect the law and rule accordingly; who set bail under legal guidelines without political grandstanding; who arrive in court on time and who limit chamber meetings in respect for crowded courtrooms and waiting lawyers; who eschew nepotism and cronyism in the hiring of staff; who abstain from politically oriented-public statements and conduct; and who follow the judicial code of ethics.

Potential candidates for the current vacancy are already being mentioned. Among these are David Norton, a member of the county attorney's staff and municipal judge in Soddy Daisy; Red Bank judge Johnny Houston; attorneys Gary Starnes, Dan McGowan and Robert Philyaw.

The fairest thing for all these candidates is a caretaker appointment of a non-candidate, preferably a retired judge or a senior lawyer who would promise to fill the seat until August, and no longer. If county commissioners are fair to the public and the court, they will appoint someone like that, and leave the August election wide open.