About 20 years ago, I spent a nervous morning in the courtroom of a famous Chattanooga judge, waiting to “face the music” on a speeding ticket. I had heard through the grapevine that taking the time to appear in court may result a in “defensive driving” course instead of a moving violation on my record. But as I sat there watching each defendant fare worse than the last, my stomach turned flips and I began to doubt my decision not to just mail in my payment of the fine.
The judge, you may recall, was not the type who merely issued a standard punishment and then banged the gavel to the next case. Instead, he took the time to speak to each defendant—in unvarnished terms—about the importance of hard work and education, and about the peril of not obeying the law. As I recall, some of his sentences seemed a bit stiff, and some were conditioned upon the defendant earning a certain grade-point average in school, or obtaining a GED. I learned two important lessons that day. The first is that hard work will be rewarded. The second is that taking an interest in people is the best way to help them take an interest in themselves.
With the lessons from that day fresh in my memory, I went on to graduate as salutatorian of my high school class, and received a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, magna cum laude. After working for a year as a software developer, I put myself through law school at the University of Georgia, where I graduated second in my class. As a result, I was fortunate upon graduation to have the opportunity to serve as a law clerk (an attorney advisor) to a judge on the United States Court of Appeals. That experience changed my view of the world and my career path.
Each day, the judge talked to us about her law practice devoted to the protection of constitutional rights in Savannah, Ga. during the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. She and her father championed the most unpopular of causes, and represented people that nobody else would represent. At the end of that clerkship year, I politely declined my offer to join an enormous corporate law firm in Atlanta, and went to work for a much smaller firm in Nashville, where I could represent real people with the sort of human problems that one does not see at a mega-firm.
After several years as a lawyer in Nashville, my wife Heather and I decided to move back to Chattanooga in 2005 to start our family. I now run my own law firm, I continue to represent individuals and small businesses in civil cases, and I defend indigent defendants in federal court when appointed by judges to do so. I’ve been a lawyer for 12 years, and although I have enjoyed being an advocate for my clients, I see a greater opportunity to help more people, and the community as a whole, as a judge. So, I am running for election to General Sessions judge.
Although I have the necessary legal training, experience, and work ethic to be a good judge, the thing that I believe makes me the best person for the job is that I’ve had life experiences in common with so many different segments of the population of Hamilton County. I don’t come from a long line of lawyers. When I was five years old, my family moved from New York to Hixson when my father (an electrical engineer) took a job in TVA’s solar energy program. From the moment we arrived, I thought I was in Heaven. My next-door neighbors and first friends in town, David and Steve Penney, took me under their wing and taught me to fish, hunt squirrels, and to know which snakes to avoid while roaming the acres of trails in their woods along Gold Point Circle. Hidden Harbor (on Big Ridge) was still a new and heavily wooded subdivision, and kids could stay out running around until bedtime. Although I wasn’t born here, I cannot imagine growing up any place else.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom before becoming UTC’s “First Adult Brock Scholar” and earning her degree while being a full-time homemaker. She then entered the workforce just in time to be one of my teachers in junior high. Around that time, TVA eliminated its solar energy program, and my family experienced the stress and uncertainty of its primary breadwinner having to search for a new job in mid-career. Fortunately for us, my dad was able to find another job with TVA—first at Sequoia, and then at Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant. He drove 100 miles a day and often worked 70-80 hours a week, sometimes in high-radiation areas of the plant. There can’t be a better role model in terms of learning the value of hard work.
I studied as hard as I could in high school in order to earn a scholarship to Vanderbilt. It covered half of my tuition, which still left a big gap. My parents found a way to pay the other half, and for that I am forever grateful. For my part, I spent my summers moving furniture for the NorthAmerican Van Lines agent on Chamberlain Avenue (A-1 Moving & Storage). With all the double-shifts, the pay was pretty good for a college kid, but probably more valuable than the money (in the long run, that is) was the experience of working alongside people who depended upon each and every paycheck to buy groceries and gas. I consider myself lucky to have been able to work with some of the hardest-working folks around. It taught me first-hand that although hard work is necessary, it’s not always enough. My coworkers at the moving company frequently reminded me that although they enjoyed having me on their crews, they didn’t want to see me make it a permanent career choice. In other words, it taught me that economic hardship is not a choice for a lot of people—it’s something that can happen despite working a lot of overtime at a very strenuous job.
As a lawyer, I’ve also seen the other side of the coin. In representing indigent criminal defendants, I’ve been surprised by how many people have no work history whatsoever. As their lawyer, I fight to protect their constitutional rights and to uphold my oath and ethical obligation, but as a taxpayer and citizen, I am disappointed in a system that allows so many willfully unemployed people to do almost as well as the people working their fingers to the bone. That frustration is compounded when I see people on government assistance convicted of serious crimes. Depending on the facts and law of the case, tougher jail sentences may help promote respect for the law and change the attitudes of serious or repeat offenders. Also important is providing educational and mentoring opportunities for children who suffer awful circumstances through no fault of their own. If those children can be reached by positive influences before they first experiment with criminal activity, perhaps the cycle can be broken. I hope to have the opportunity to work with other leaders to find solutions to our gang problem, which is a social problem as much as it is a crime problem.
I’m optimistic about the future of Hamilton County. I can’t think of a better place to live, and I feel lucky to be part of a community that is on such an upward path. I’m asking you to vote for me for Sessions Court judge, because I am committed to continuing that trend.