Use A Bar Poll To Help Decide Next Judge - And Response

Sunday, March 17, 2019

All people who are familiar with the Hamilton County General Session Court which contains five judges will tell you that Judge Clarence Shattuck is by far the best judge, and perhaps in the history of General Sessions Court. He is highly respected for his legal ability, courtesy, understanding, judicial temperament, who is not bias and is neutral to all parties whether a civil case or more frequently the many criminal cases that come through this court.

For one he does not automatically take sides in a criminal case or a preliminary hearing. At times when the assistant district attorney did not have sufficient proof he would dismiss the case. He was known to never jack up a bond after a criminal defendant had a preliminary hearing, which sadly was the practice among some but not all sessions court judges and assistant district attorney generals in past years until complaints were made and this practiced stopped. However there are times when bonds need to be increased for criminal defendants, no doubt, but not for the reason of making someone have to work harder or to make the docket move faster, or to compel a defendant to waive his probable cause hearing. Even if a case did not go the way the defense attorney had hope for, at least the attorney would leave the court room knowing that he or she had a fair hearing with an impartial judge.

Today the higher Hamilton Criminal Courts are saturated with cases which originated in the lower General Sessions Court, in fact it is estimated that up to 25 percent of all cases in this court should have been settled or disposed of at the lower general sessions court level where the five judges including Judge Shattuck preside. Why are these cases not resolved at the Sessions Court level?

Here lies the problem and I am not going to degrade a few of the other judges. But Sessions Court should be a court that does more than accept guilty pleas and conduct preliminary hearings. It needs to be a court where attorneys have faith in the ability and fairness of the judges so that they can trust the court to hear their client's case without having to bound it over.

To be fair, the judges are not the only ones to blame for this situation because the conduct of some assistant district attorneys, and yes, even defense attorneys who have no problem with bounding case over as the more he may charge his client, also contribute to this problem.

I have no favorite in the 18 candidates who have applied for retiring Judge Shattack's position. My further thoughts on this matter are that the commissioners who will decide who will be appointed the new judge should not place too much emphasis on a candidate being either an assistant district attorney or a elected municipal judge because these positions were applied for  employment to the elected district attorney general who hired them, or even in the case of the municipal judges that person was either elected with token opposition because no attorney wanted the position.

Since elected politicians do not know the lawyers as attorneys do, why can not the Chattanooga Bar Association conduct a poll among their membership among the 18 applicants so as to assist the commissioners in making their selection? I know bar polls are not popular among some of our judges but Judge Shattuck was rated at the top of all judges in Hamilton County. I say why not the best. Is this not a better procedure than having some career politicians, many at the state level, lobby the various commissioners for their friends and buddies for this position that pays $171,000?

This position should not be determined by who you know, or by who happens to be of a certain race. No it should be decided on an attorney who has the same qualities as Judge Clarence Shattuck. I say after the application process is over, request a bar poll and let the lawyers give their input and not the career politicians. Postpone this decision until this is done. 

A.B. Swartz, Sr.

* * * 

The idea you have presented is more troublesome than the Hamilton County Commission appointing a Session Court judge.  

Session Court judges are a voters decision, not a Bar Association decision. 

First and foremost, the Sessions Court judges are elected by the people through voting, not special interest.  I feel the power of the people to select judges has largely been hijacked through the political appointment process.  Part of the problem is the duration of the judicial terms being eight years.  People retire and have health reasons to resign their elected position. 

The appointment of elected judicial seats bypasses the power of the people to decide, and often times our Hamilton County Commission always selects the rich and powerful large law firm choice.   In fact, often times two large law firms are selecting the appointment.  It is rather nasty affair.

When the Commission appoints, it is always a political pick, and the person selected is usually afforded many years of unfair political advantage working in the position as an appointment, rather than a selection by the people. The appointed judge will campaign 24/7 while on the job serving in the appointment, creating framework for unfair advantage.

There have been two judges that have turned the appointment apple cart upside down, and let me assure you, it is a political hack cart that needs to be challenged. These elected judicial seats are not of the Bar Association or the Hamilton County Commission, they belong to we the people to decide.  Each time an appointment occurs, the voters are removed, and have an appointed judge with an unfair advantage.  It is a fact, the appointed judge hits the ground in office campaigning nonstop. We see this over and over, the same unfair cycle through judicial appointment.

I would respectfully ask that our Hamilton County Commission appoint a temporary judge contingent on the appointment agreeing not to run for the office, and restore the decision-making process to voting by we the people. 

The judicial selection has never been a decision of the Bar Association or the Hamilton County Commission, it belongs to we the people.

It is also a shame that local paid consultants have ruined the opportunities for regular or small firm attorneys to run for the sessions court judicial seat. I worked a judicial campaign for no pay as I always do, and the campaign cost around $50,000 or so to run county wide in 2012.  That is what grass roots does, it is people working without pay for the candidate they believe in.  Then, the money mongering political campaign consultants took over running their stable of attorney candidates in about 2012, and have driven the costs to over $150,000 to run. 

The judicial seats are now a money game with consultants building their stable based upon who has the most upfront money.   The consultants also build power by growing their stable of elected, and are toxic to our local election process.  None of this is good for the citizens of Hamilton County.  These are not blind allegations, I have the campaign finance filing for all of the initial judicial seats.

I don’t believe in the political consultant stable environment.  Typically, a judicial candidate will sign on to be part of one of the local political consulting groups, there are about three that run these campaigns for an initial judicial election.  These races were grass roots efforts before the paid consultants, who have literally ruined the grass roots races we use to enjoy in Hamilton County.  I think it is time for this system to be challenged by grass roots races.

Individual attorneys, not associated with a large law firm, should have a chance without excessive spending. We need to understand how the large law firms hijack these judicial appointments and lobby. I promise they do. This ain’t my first rodeo.

In short, your idea of the Bar Association selecting the Sessions Court appointment, nay nay, seen too much bias in campaigns from them. 

Please Hamilton County Commission reject the notion, let the people own the selection of the new Sessions Court judicial seat by appointing an attorney as genuine and real fill in judge that agrees not to run for the seat.

Let the folks not affiliated with large law firms have a chance. I am hoping some newer and young groups will intervene and run great campaigns to rip the political appointment away and a fair election by the people.

April Eidson


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