Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Christie Mahn Sell has been busy since she became the first female General Sessions judge elected to an eight-year term here in 2006.
She won a 2008 Outstanding Judicial Services Award. She unified community leaders to create a Domestic Violence Court in 2010 and was awarded the statewide 2010 Leadership Award by the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence. She was elected "Fellow" both locally by the Chattanooga Bar Foundation in 2013, and statewide by the Tennessee Bar Foundation in 2014. She was chosen a 2014 Women of Distinction. And she recently was selected to serve as the "Community Champion" for the Teen Violence Prevention Grant.
It seems little wonder then that when she ran for office the first time she faced four opponents, but this year faces just one: local attorney Rex Sparks, who also has been a probation and parole officer and an assistant prosecutor.
Sparks, 62, said in a recent interview that he chose to challenge Sell because senior Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck is his mentor, recently appointed Judge Lila Statom is his close friend, Judge Gary Starnes won a short race in 2012 against interim Judge David Norton, and at the time he filed his qualifying papers, Judge David Bales already had an opponent [who later dropped out of the race.]
Sparks says he would increase efficiency in the crowded Sessions docket by holding a weekly night court for certain misdemeanor offenses that might not require the arresting officer to be present. He also would structure the daily docket call to reschedule all first appearances of defendants who had not yet hired attorneys at the start of the docket, clearing out many of the people often waiting hours to get a rescheduled hearing date.
Sell, meanwhile, has her eye on creating a new mental health court modeled somewhat after the Domestic Violence Court she started in 2010
"So much of the criminal activity [is] mental health related," Sell said. Such a court should help gain better service with far-reaching impacts to the entire court system by helping to stabilize defendants and head off recurring criminal activity.
Sell is the right choice for the job.
The Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk makes no policy and holds no real power. But it provides the infrastructure to carry out the administrative work that keeps justice moving.
And this year, with a former police officer, mayor and retiring Republican state representative seeking to unseat Hamilton County's 20-year Democratic incumbent, it is one of the hottest local elections.
State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, hopes to come home from his $19,009-a-year Nashville job (with $173-a-day per diem) and take the $103,795 seat of incumbent clerk Gwen Tidwell. He says he is running because Tidwell has shirked her duty to the taxpayers and allowed delinquent fees to accumulate to about $50 million -- enough to fund the office for 25 years.
But Tidwell says the office has been collecting fees and overdue fines with her staff since she first took office in 1994. Since then, she's saved taxpayers $6.3 million by fully funding her office through timely collections for the past 15 years.
But she says that those collections were the easy ones, so more than a year ago she began talking to county officials about hiring a collection agency to handle debts over a year old and out-of-state.
In December, her talking bore fruit, and the County Commission hired a collection service. She then became the first clerk statewide to even attempt collecting long-overdue court costs.
Dean's accusations and, frankly his math, paint a simplistic and somewhat deceptive picture of a complicated situation.
When criminal defendants are sentenced, they are assessed court fees and other fines. If they have been in jail awaiting trial or go to jail (which adds $56 a day to the tab), they have no way of paying the costs. Some, if they are released, leave the state. Some even die.
In addition to collecting court fees, the Criminal Court clerk also keeps records for the county's criminal courts -- records that are invaluable to both the public and the court system. Dean claims that making these records -- complaints and motions, not just the charges and dispositions -- easily available online is needed to help attorneys and the public.
He's right, but the hold-up has not been with the clerk's office. The complaints are usually police reports, and currently only one department, the Chattanooga Police Department, files its arrest reports with the clerk's office electronically. The clerk has no authority to require electronic filing.
It would seem that in this computerized world, requiring digital police records to be collected on standard forms and filed electronically would be criminal records reform that a former officer and current state lawmaker could better handle right where he was for years -- in the East Ridge mayor's office and certainly in the chambers of the General Assembly.
We endorse Gwen Tidwell.