Party Foul

Can judges be impartial and partisan?

Another election is upon us, and in Knox County, the first true County Commission since 2002 will be assembled, kicking off the term-limits era voters thought they started in 1996. In Blount County, a circuit-court contest has been an object lesson in why political parties should be purged from judicial elections.

Division II Circuit Court Judge Mike Meares was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in July 2007. As election season rolled around, Division I Judge Dale Young sent a letter to the Maryville Daily Times alleging that Meares was amassing a backlog of cases. Young claimed his court had no backlog. On April 25, Young assigned 29 civil cases to Meares and took one case from him. Traditionally, the Division II court handles criminal cases, while Young's handles civil cases. Why a judge with no backlog would dump 29 cases on a judge already overburdened was not explained, but it turns out the opposite is true.

Judge Meares disposed of more cases than he has been assigned, and Court Clerk Tom Hatcher testified that Meares processed "a lot of cases that were laying around when he was appointed to the bench." It was Hatcher who provided Judge Young with the bad data, and he offered a menu of excuses from computer problems to mail getting lost on its way to Nashville. Meares discovered irregularities in rule changes made while his seat was vacant, changes that allowed Young to assign cases to Meares.

Young, Hatcher, and much of the Blount County legal establishment are Republicans, and Meares, a Democrat, received little cooperation while looking into Young's allegations. Correspondence between Young's secretary and a state administrator contradicts the judge's claims about a public comment period, and it is not clear the rule changes were ever published or properly submitted to the state. Attorney Melanie Davis, chair of the Local Rules Committee at the time, testified that Young asked her to amend changes after approval by the Blount County Bar Association, and her copy differed from those of other committee members.

She was one of four attorneys summoned on a Saturday night to appear before Meares on Monday, May 12. The week before, the bar declined to address concerns over what rules were in force until after the election. Hatcher and two more attorneys were later called before Meares. Normally, a summons goes through Hatcher's office and is served by sheriff's deputies, but Meares had Maryville police serve the first set of papers, unusual but legal.

Local reporters had no trouble getting information. News of a state investigation was leaked, and among those questioned, only attorney Stephen Ogle declined comment because the inquiry was confidential. Coverage has been biased against Meares; most recently both Blount County papers misread Meares' findings as a challenge to Young to reply or abandon his office, but Meares actually wrote that he would be abandoning his own oath if he allowed Young's false claims to go without reply.

Though Meares voided two paragraphs of the amended rules, he demanded nothing of Young, accepting the transferred workload. Young is Meares' peer on the circuit bench; Sessions Court Judge David Duggan, another Republican, is running against Meares and refuses to comment on the matter.

While false accusations against candidates are common, they are troublesome coming from a sitting judge with partisan motivations. Meares aligned himself with a national organization working to end partisan judicial elections, and he has refused to take donations from attorneys. His opponent has raised nearly $100,000, much from attorneys and big Republican donors. Duggan's campaign materials proudly label him Republican, while Meares' signs claim no party.

Isn't that what most of us want—politicians with the courage to run without the machinations of political parties? Whigs and Mugwumps came and went in American politics, and it has been too long since a political party died. Let's off both by supporting candidates who transcend partisanship and work toward non-partisan elections for judges and all public offices.