Chattanoogan: Gary Starnes – The People’s Judge

Sunday, July 07, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Though he was born in Detroit, Gary Starnes speaks with an undeniable Southern accent. The Chattanooga judge who was sworn in last August recalls his brief time in Detroit while the 1967 riots were going on.

“There are some things that stay in your mind and you never forget it,” Gary says. “I don’t think the 82nd Airborne had landed in Detroit yet and it was really bad. I remember we were on the beach and a police officer was pulled off of his horse and beaten up right in front of us,” Gary says.

His father Jere Starnes had told the family they were leaving Detroit and moving to Tennessee where he became a state trooper. Jere took his wife Jackie and their three sons Ronnie, Gary and Robert to Columbia, Tn., where they lived for the next 10 years. When Jere was promoted to sergeant, they lived in Lawrenceburg for a year before moving to Chattanooga. Jackie Starnes was a bookkeeper for a trucking company in Lawrenceburg and continued that line of work with Wagoner Freight Lines.

“When we first came to Chattanooga I thought it was like New York City. It was massive compared to what we were used to in our little country town. The very first place my dad took us was up the W Road on Signal Mountain. We were at the top of it looking down over the city standing on one of those walls. We didn’t think anything about falling. At that time there wasn’t a lot of traffic - if you did that now you’d get run over,” Gary chuckles.

Gary’s father was promoted to captain of the Highway Patrol and is now retired along with his mother Jackie. His older brother Ronnie had died unexpectedly about five years ago from massive heart failure without previous health problems.

“Ronnie didn’t go to college and went from job to job for years. Then he decided to go into restaurant management. He started off at McDonalds and ended up as a general manager of Red Lobster outside of New York City. He was in the Bronx before that – a farm boy from Chattanooga in the Bronx,” Gary laughs.  “He was six foot seven and had no fear. Ronnie had been in the Army for four years and he was mouthy. When you are six foot seven and nearly 320 pounds, you can get away with that.”

Gary’s youngest brother Robert towers over his older brother by about four inches. “I was the smallest of my brothers. I used to have to run from them, but I was fast - that’s probably why I am crippled now!” Gary jokes.

With a family in law enforcement, Gary rightly esteems the law. “My brother Robert has done well in his profession. He went into law enforcement starting out in the jail and worked his way up to lieutenant. During the process, he served on the DUI Task Force and has received a number of state awards for his performance as part of the Task Force. I think one was for being the arresting officer for the most DUIs in the state, two years in a row,” Gary boasts.

As a child Gary had thought of becoming a firefighter, but when he seriously began planning his career, he considered law.

“I didn’t want to be a policeman. I had seen all the heartbreak that causes – the tension and stress is just horrendous,” Gary admits. “You would have to be in a family of law enforcement to see that.”

His mother Jackie encouraged him to stay driven. “She was meticulous and always had structure. She was the one with the whip to keep me on course,” Gary laughs.

While the men in his family were well over six feet, it comes as no surprise that Gary excelled in basketball during his school years.

“I led the county in scoring (we didn’t have 3 point shots back then). My name is still on the board at Lookout Valley High - no one had broken that, but I always had flipped back and forth with Jimmy Braddock - a Baylor friend of mine. I had scored 52 points in a game and they took me out in the third quarter. I thought no one would be able to break that and two years later Jimmy comes along and gets 58,” Gary concedes.

He tried out for the team at UTC as a ‘walk on’ and played for two years until knee surgery would force Gary to give it up.

His wife Carol had also played basketball and shares a memorable person with Gary whom they knew during their school days at Lookout Valley High.

“We had a teacher named Nancy Ferguson and she ruled with an iron fist. When she railed on you, it was tough.  She taught us how to diagram sentences and she taught us never to use the word ‘you’ in a sentence. Now …try to write a three-page letter to Santa Claus asking him for something that you want for Christmas without using the word ‘you’,” Gary laughs.

“She taught me so well on writing that Carol and I really know how to write. We know never to end a sentence with a preposition… don’t ever do that. I find myself doing it in text messages and I will go back and correct it because Mrs. Ferguson had that much of an impact on me. To this day I still worry if I am putting ‘you’ in a sentence,” Gary admits.

“During my 26 years of practice, Mrs. Ferguson showed up in my office one day and I represented her. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, when I send her a letter she is going to critique it! She had asked me ‘Do you have a copy of one of your briefs?’ And I asked why. She said she just wanted to look at it - she sent it back, chopped up and she used her red pen… not just any red pen – the kind that flared! It would blink at you,” Gary jokes.

A fellow team player, Sam Myers couldn’t type and had asked Gary for help. “Mrs. Ferguson asked Sam to come up to her desk to see his paper. He asked why he got a B- on it. She said, ‘Well, look on the front…’  I had misspelled Sam’s name. I put Meyers instead of Myers – it was right on the front. She ended up changing his grade, but she knew it was me,” Gary says.

Gary was always interested in law. “I remember taking a law course at UTC in criminal justice and I thought this is fascinating. We were reading cases and then learning civil law exercises. I started getting into that and I thought it was wonderful and my son Bryan is also interested in it – he wants to go to law school.

Gary and Carol have been married for 31 years and have three children and one grandson. The couple lived in Memphis during Gary’s first year of law school and while Carol was pregnant with daughter Leslie. Being homesick and wanting to raise his daughter near family, Gary transferred to UTK where he obtained his law degree.

“We had a bunch of student loans and Carol worked every day. She went from being a secretary to somewhat of a paralegal in a couple of law firms and then she went to work for a daycare. It was less money, but we could keep our daughter there which saved tons of money. Carol made that sacrifice so I told her when I got out of law school that she didn’t have to work if she didn’t want to and she hasn’t worked since. I say that lightly though because she was raising our first daughter our second daughter and our son. That is a job in itself!” Gary chuckles.

Daughter Christina shares, “My dad never left our side. When we were little, my sister and I played softball every summer. Our dad never missed a game no matter how tired he was. He would work from sun up to sun down and immediately come to our games because he didn't want to miss anything. Then afterward, he would always make us oatmeal with milk and lots of sugar. And it didn't matter what time it was - he just wanted to hang out with us.”

Gary remembers in his personal injury days at his law practice when he represented people who were injured in accidents.

“We would use an economist to determine the worth of a woman’s position at home and it is astounding to put a quantitative amount to it. It comes out to more than two million dollars – sometimes three or four when you are talking about a 30-year life span – it’s tough work,” Gary acknowledges.

When asked what Carol is worth today Gary says, “Everything (wait …what is that commercial?) Priceless!” Gary insists.

Christina says, “It really says a lot about a man who is still committed, faithful and loving to his high school sweetheart because these days it is so rare. My dad has really set the bar high for any guy we date or marry.”

Gary beams with pride when he talks about his wife. “Carol still looks like a teenager. During the campaign I had to constantly tell people ‘This is my high school sweetheart and we’ve been married for 31 years,’ because a lot of people would think she was a second wife and that we had a new son because we were always holding our grandson Avery” Gary says.

Avery is the apple of his Papaw’s eye. “In my opinion, Dad’s whole world changed completely when Avery was born. They have been best friends ever since. He drives 45 minutes at least twice a week to come out and see him and Avery adores him. They like to hang out in ‘Papaw’s truck’ when they are together. He's amazing with him and Avery really looks up to him. He's the only person my dad won't say no to,” Christina laughs.

During his early days of law, Gary admired trial lawyer Hal Hamilton who also had made an impact in his life. “He was as mean as a snake and would bull doze his way into a room,” Gary vows.

“He would always say, ‘Starnes! This is the 1-2-3 scenario on how we’re going to do this’,” Gary impersonates, “and whenever he talked, your eyebrows would just singe because he was really loud. He taught me how to stay on task just like my mom and my English teacher did,” Gary maintains.

“Hal would let me try the cases and he’d sit behind me saying, ‘You’re screwing it up son, but I need you to straighten it up’,” Gary laughs. “He taught me how to be professional and to get your point across, but to never treat anyone disrespectfully (and if you do – say it so that they don’t know it). I was scared to death of him but he was always helpful.”

Gary admits to being a little nervous when he faced the other side of the courtroom. “When you are on the bench you are dealing with people’s lives and you have the power to put them in jail.”

On his second day, he heard a criminal case (which was a preliminary hearing) and one of the accused had threatened him. 

“They make threats all the time – it is part of the territory. I was not used to being in the judicial position, but I don’t have a problem with putting someone in jail who needs to be there,” Gary says.

“I also don’t want to ruin a teenager’s life either, when there are all sorts of alternatives that I can wear them out on - without ruining them. You have to make split-second decisions that can change someone’s life forever and that carries an awesome responsibility,” Gary vows.

“You have to be a neutral person. It doesn’t matter what color, creed or political persuasion a person is; all I think about from the criminal side is what they are charged with and what elements are there. A lot of that has to do with my private practice over the years. I never discriminated against them and I was trained as a mediator - that teaches you a lot about being neutral,” Garysays.

His bench style is to be stern but fair. “My approach is accountability. This business of patting someone on the back and not holding them accountable – that day is gone. In my courtroom they have to be respectful,” Gary demands.

“There has to be consequences. If they don’t understand they have done something wrong, they will just keep doing it. You have to be stern but always treat people with respect. I understand from my own life experiences what they are going through, what position they are in and what they have done. I have had friends whose children will be in front of me and, if they are close friends, I recuse myself from the case when they are facing pretty serious charges,” Gary says.

“I have had cases where my brother Robert was the arresting officer and I had to recuse myself from the case. Sometimes, friends may think that knowing me will help them out, but it doesn’t. I couldn’t be neutral and that would be wrong, so I have to recuse myself - that’s hard,” he admits.

“Dad really wants to make a difference in people's lives. The great thing is that he gives people a chance to make things right. He works with them and gives them the option to make a positive change,” Christina says.

Whatever the case may be, Gary views more than a docket placed in front of him - he sees the person.

“They are in the same position of people I have known for years and they are scared – they don’t know what to do. Everyone has things they have done and they are not bad people. Some of them are bad and I can say without hesitation that they need to be in jail,” Gary says firmly.

“I have to be the tough-love person. I have to be tough so that they learn, but I just see ‘society’ and that comes from life experiences that I have had with my own family. I know what they feel and I have been through it,” Gary holds.

“Judges have that awesome ability to change peoples’ lives – that is important and it is one of the reasons I wanted to be a judge.”

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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