The Hamilton County Commission likely will vote in a replacement Wednesday for Judge Clarence Shattuck in General Sessions Court.
Nineteen attorneys have lined up for the position, which handles about 50,000 criminal and civil cases, since Shattuck announced his April 1 retirement last month. Shattuck, 82, has been on the bench since his appointment in 1982.
According to numerous interviews the Times Free Press conducted, three attorneys are up for serious consideration after lobbying for the judgeship: Cris Helton, the judge of East Ridge City Court; Gerald Webb, a defense attorney who serves on Erlanger hospital's board and on the county school district's equity task force; and Kevin Wilson, judge of Collegedale's municipal court for the last 28 years.
Applicant and respected civil attorney W. Joseph Hollis Jr. also received the top nod for replacement from the Chattanooga Bar Association's poll, and supporters of magistrate Ron Powers have called and emailed commissioners numerous times in recent days.
Whoever is selected will begin the job next month. In the event commissioners cannot reach a decision while voting, two applicants have volunteered to hold the seat until the next election in August 2020: Attorney Philip Strang and former prosecutor, former Gang Task Force director and current Assistant Public Defender Boyd Patterson.
Helton, Webb and Wilson all have extensive experience practicing in General Sessions Court, where Helton and Wilson have both "sat in" for judges during scheduling conflicts. Here is more about the three top candidates.
After beginning his career as a court clerk, going to law school and working as an assistant district attorney for three years, Helton started a private practice in 1993, later served as city attorney in East Ridge and beat incumbent East Ridge Court Judge Arvin Reingold in 2014.
Helton hit some roadblocks along the way. In 2007, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility censured him for the way he handled an estate case. According to documentation, Helton did not provide an accounting of his time and work on the case despite multiple orders from Chancellor Howell Peoples, who found him in contempt of court and briefly sent Helton to jail.
During that time, Helton said, he and his wife, Esther Helton, were divorcing. Cris Helton said he was also undergoing a financial crisis, which partly resulted in getting sued in 2017 by the IRS for back taxes.
"In 2007, I lost virtually all of my income and sank into a very deep, severe depression where I could not even work hardly between 2007 and 2008," he said Tuesday. "But since then, I have been able to claw my way back and get back into business and run for election in East Ridge and try to do everything that is right every day."
As a judge, Helton has advocated for East Ridge court information to be synced with Hamilton County General Sessions Court for more efficiency. He also streamlined East Ridge Court, which meets once a week, so that it finishes at a normal hour.
"He's impressive at his job. He gives you findings of fact. If he's going to take somebody into custody, if he makes a decision contrary to what the state wants, he's going to tell you why he did it, and that's appreciated," said Assistant District Attorney Darren Gibson, who has prosecuted cases in East Ridge for several years. Gibson added there's an "embarrassment of riches" among the judicial candidates.
As he told commissioners during his interview last week, Webb's background sets him apart: He grew up in a Brainerd neighborhood with people who work in the highest levels of government and with people who live in the penitentiary.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, getting his law degree in the early 2000s, working as a prosecutor and trying his hand at corporate litigation for Life Care Centers of America, Webb settled into private practice. He also sits on the Erlanger hospital board, where he has argued against raises for executives, and is on the school district's equity task force.
If selected, Webb, who is black, would be the only judge of color in Hamilton County's General Sessions and Criminal courts.
Webb's firm, Speek, Webb, Turner and Newkirk, does represent one of the county's largest bail-bonding companies, Key Bonding. County court records show Key Bonding has the highest amount of money in forfeited bonds in the last six months: $430,850. That doesn't include any bonds Key may have forfeited in other courts in East Ridge, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Collegedale or Hamilton County Criminal Court.
If selected as judge, Webb said, he would recuse himself if any client that he or his law partners have represented came before him.
Wilson, who earned a business administration and a law degree in 1981, became a Collegedale judge in 1990 and is now a board member of a nonprofit dedicated to the development of Collegedale.
Wilson has never been censured or disciplined in his 28 years on the bench, and he has been re-elected three times, records show. Advocates say he's a people person who runs an efficient court, cares deeply about his role as judge and doesn't let defendants mistreat him or other court employees.
In addition to serving in Collegedale, Wilson has served as a special judge in Hamilton County General Sessions Court and numerous other courts, including Red Bank, East Ridge, Signal Mountain, Polk County General Sessions Court and Cleveland City Court.
Wilson came under fire for a recent case he handled while sitting in for the Hamilton County General Sessions Court judges. On Feb. 21, Chattanooga attorney David Barrow said, Wilson put a 27-year-old man in jail for coming to court late and ordered "bail will be set" after the man's next appearance in court. But the man's next court date wasn't scheduled until March 26, meaning he would've sat in custody for a little more than a month without a bond, Barrow said.
Wilson said Thursday he did not recall the case but added he would never book somebody on a warrant and leave them in jail for 30 days without a bond. There are numerous factors that could tie a person up in Sessions Court, including a probation violation, not serving public work days or failing to appear, he said.
The 27-year-old was released about two weeks later, Barrow said, after he was hired onto the case and worked out an agreement with a prosecutor and another judge.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.