Roy Exum: Judge Philyaw Is The Best

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - by Roy Exum

Tomorrow morning there will be a special gathering at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court that will prove to our community that we have perhaps the most innovative juvenile judge in America. Shortly after Rob Philyaw was hand-picked by our Hamilton County Commissioners to fill the remainder of Suzanne Bailey’s term 15 months ago, he found that truancy was a big problem in our schools.

So the judge hand-picked a diverse group of educators, social workers, law enforcement experts and court officials to study and address a common-sense solution aimed at making our children successful.

They have met once a month for an entire year, the early meetings admittedly heated at times. But what matters most is tomorrow Judge Philyaw and School Superintendent Rick Smith will unveil an unprecedented plan to help solve a major area of concern in our educational process.

“I’ve only seen a draft but this is going to help a lot of children stay in school,” Philyaw promised me on Monday. And just as his new Peer Review Court and his fledgling Children’s Drug Court are meeting the needs of our community more than ever before, Judge Philyaw is turning out to be one of the best decisions our county commissioners ever made.

I told him three different times yesterday he had the worst job in America. He has to deal with the worst kids in town. He has to take screaming children away from parents, this despite the fact they have been abused. Every day he has to have the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. I could no more hold the fate of a 13-year-old caught alone on the streets at 3 a.m. than I could the fact the poor child was that desperate to find something to eat.

But every time I told the 47-year-old how rotten his job was, he looked at me, laughed in a way that involved his eyes and his whole face, and shook his head. “Some days are real hard but the good things far outnumber the bad. I think this court is more like an intersection, and I promise you we help a lot of folks go the right way … all the time.”

Three of Chattanooga’s beat cops first told me about Philyaw at a Subway Restaurant after I casually asked them who was the best judge in town. They say his cool demeanor and his intimate knowledge of the law often hides the fact he’s got a heart as big as California.  Not long ago he had a 13-year-old in his court who had actually hijacked a car with a pistol, if you can image any 13-year-old waving around a loaded semi-automatic.

What the judge knew – but was inadmissible in court – was that three much older gangsters were hiding in the bushes. If the 13-year-old got caught with the gun, he wouldn’t have any “priors” but all three of the older guys were already convicted felons. Clever, huh?

No wonder they manipulated the child. “Any child is desperate for love and affection. That’s how the gangs entice the small kids,” Rob explained. “Gangs are a growing problem as they prey on our children. One day I had four different cases involving two 12-year-olds and two 13-year-olds – all gun related.”

Do we need more School Resources Officers in our schools? “We have some schools that have two or three and some that have none but let’s look at what an SRO really does. For the most part they are mentors to children. Sure, they take some of the disciplinary headache away from principals but my experience is that most are wonderful people who quickly become a key part of the faculty.

“I’ll tell you what I don’t agree with,” he added, “Zero tolerance. Just as no case is ever the same in my courtroom, there needs to be some common sense involved where children are concerned. I wish our schools would take another look at that and figure out a way to do what is best for the child. He may need to be punished. He should be held accountable, but let’s remember a child is exactly that – a child with the mind of a child.”

“Most of the children that we see in Juvenile Court never come back. Chattanooga is incredibly blessed with social workers, wonderful organizations and non-profits that are oriented towards children and families. We see success stories every day.”

What’s the very worst part of the job? “The really bad criminal cases and having to terminate parental rights,” answered Philyaw. “We have some children whose parents won’t even show up and that hurts because the child knows he’s been abandoned. Then again, that’s the child who most needs our help and I’m very happy we can provide it.”

Rob Philyaw, a Republican, is running against an admittedly good candidate in Yolanda Echols Mitchell, a Democrat. The difference in the two, in all honestly, is that Yolanda is good but Philyaw has proven he’s a notch above -- great. He’s done all he has promised and, as you will learn tomorrow, he has delivered far more. His court, with a $7 million budget, is in extraordinary shape and, remember, he has a heart bigger than California.

Yet his most telling endorsement, this by a mile, came from three of Chattanooga’s Finest as they ate an early supper at the Subway on South Broad about a month ago. These officers are in the game every day and they see everything. All three agree Rob Philyaw is the best judge out of our whole bunch. I believe Rob Philyaw deserves every vote.

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