While I am keeping an open mind on the Juvenile Court issues as public hearings and committee meetings continue, this guest editorial published in the 11/20/06 Commercial Appeal reflects my views so far.
“A Second Judgeship In Juvenile Court IS Needed”
via the Commercial Appeal, November 20, 2006.
In the near future, the Shelby County Commission will appoint a judge to fill the second Juvenile Court Judgeship, with the voters filling the position for the remainder of the 8 year term in the next election. There’s been much discussion lately of this second judgeship, but some points have been overlooked. Simply put, the current Court is an outmoded system in which the elected judge does not actually “judge” but simply administers a group of 7 unelected non-judge “referees” who actually hear the cases. The second judgeship is a move toward a system in which elected judges hear the cases, which is what voters expect judges to do.
The Need For A Second Judge. Back in 1967, the state legislature authorized Shelby County to fill a second judgeship once the county determined there was a “need” for one. Since then, the caseload has grown enormously and there is a backlog. There is a dispute about how big the backlog is, but even current court officials acknowledge it is significant. The rising caseload caused then-Judge Kenneth Turner to hire more and more “referees” to hear the cases. These referees are appointed by, and accountable only to, the current Juvenile Court Judge. Clearly, the docket is large enough to warrant a second judge, and the “need” arose a long time ago. But because of political posturing back then, the second judgeship was not enacted by the County Commission.
Current Court officials say that the need is only for caseworkers-that the bottleneck is only getting cases ready for hearing–and a second judge won’t solve the problem. There may be a need for additional caseworkers, but attorneys practicing in the court complain about delays even in cases ready for hearing. And those same court officials have suggested hiring two more referees at $104,000- $110,000 each, a step clearly aimed at handling cases ready for hearing. Instead of hiring two more referees, we should hire one more judge, and have the current elected judge hear cases too.
Judging By Judges. Even aside from the issue of backlog, it is better for the administration of justice to have two judges actually hearing cases rather than one judge do only administrative work and allow referees to adjudicate everything. In other Tennessee counties, the elected Juvenile Court judges actually sit and hear cases. Shelby County is different simply for historical reasons: then-Judge Turner was not a licensed Tennessee lawyer, and was legally ineligible to hear certain types of cases. That is no longer true with newly elected Judge Person, and won’t be true with the second judge.
Administrative Efficiency. Some have argued that having two judges would create administrative chaos. But the Commission resolution calls for administrative responsibility to rotate among the sitting judges, a commonly used model in other multi-judge courts in Shelby County and across Tennessee. It would force the two judges to achieve consensus on administrative issues while still leaving a clear chain of command. The day-to-day administration will be handled by a single Court Administrative Officer, just like in other county courts. June Wood serves as the chief administrative officer for the court and her $106,200 salary reflects her responsibility.
Politics. It’s also been alleged that this is “political payback” by the Democrats, because Judge Person is a Republican. For me, this is not a partisan issue or personal, but about what is in the best interest of the juveniles and families who have to go through that court. Close to 90% of clients who need an efficient and fair court are African- American. Studies of this court indicate that these families have not been offered adequate legal representation.
The vote for the second judge was bipartisan, while the vote for the status quo was not. We’d need a second judge regardless of who was elected Juvenile Court judge back in August, because the need for a multi-judge court is clear. If there is any political motivation here at all, it is the opposition by those with a vested interest in the status quo, to a reform which would require the sharing of power.
Nor is the timing of the decision – several months after Judge Person’s August election – at all suspicious. This change was long overdue, but was suppressed by a County Commission so as not to offend then-judge Turner. Since the August election, Judge Turner has retired, the new judge is eligible to hear all types of cases personally, and we have 8 new County Commissioners willing to take a fresh look at the operations of Juvenile Court.
The County Commission has formed an Ad Hoc Committee to study how else to improve the Juvenile Court. It will consider input from all stakeholders. It’s chaired by Republican Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who voted for the second judgeship despite intense partisan pressure to do otherwise. We are moving forward with public hearings on this issue in the next few weeks. In the meantime, the children served by Juvenile Court need help, and we should fill the second judgeship sooner rather than later.