2014 Elections: Judicial Races, Part 1

If you aren’t a lawyer, and you don’t regularly spend time at the courthouse, Knox County judicial races are something you probably ignore.

Judges—or would-be judges—can’t run on issues the way politicians can. They can’t talk about how they would rule without the potential for serious trouble—ethics complaints, mistrials, even lawsuits. In short, judicial races are often kind of boring.

But most of you will end up in a local court at some point in your lives. You might be the victim of a crime. You might commit a crime. You might have an abusive boyfriend and need an order of protection. Your company might be sued. You might want a divorce. You might adopt a child. You might be stuck with a complicated probate after the death of a relative.

All of these issues—and plenty others—end up before a judge. And if that judge isn’t prepared or doesn’t understand the law, your life could be seriously impacted. Worse, if a really terrible judge gets elected, he’s on the bench for the next eight years, not just four.

This is why you need to pay attention to the five contested judicial races in August’s general election. Whether you choose to vote in the Republican or Democratic state primary, you’ll still get to vote in all of these races. And even if you generally vote a straight party line, you’ll be better served by considering each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, regardless of his or her political affiliation—almost everyone we interviewed says they’d prefer judicial elections to be non-partisan anyway.

This week we profile two of the judicial races on the ballot. Next week we’ll cover the rest.

Criminal Court, Division III

Of all the judicial races, this one has most divided the legal community in its support. Criminal Court is one of the most high-profile courts, but it’s also one of the most stressful. Judges here can literally make life and death decisions, and that’s what has people torn.

Democrat Leland Price has worked in the Knox County District Attorney’s office since 1997, but he’s best known for his prosecutions—and re-prosecutions—of the Christian-Newsom murders. Republican Scott Green also worked in the DA’s office, in both Sevier and Knox Counties, but since 2002 he’s worked the other side of the courtroom—including handling the defense of Letalvis Cobbins, who was found guilty of the Christian-Newsom murders but escaped the death penalty. (Green was appointed to defend Cobbins. He says he’d have preferred to not have had anything to do with the case.)

Both Price and Green have nothing but positive things to say about each other’s experience. They like each other personally, too. According to several lawyers we asked—some favoring one candidate and some the other—the legal community seems to be in agreement that both men are qualified for the seat.

Yet unlike so many elections in Knox County, this race is not breaking down along party lines. Green may have the support of prominent Republicans like former Mayor Victor Ashe and Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, but he also has the backing of many of the town’s important—and Democratic—criminal defense attorneys. Price has plenty of Democratic supporters, such as his boss, DA Randy Nichols, and power attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, but he also has Republicans like Pete DeBusk and Nick Cazana championing his cause.

According to the lawyers we spoke with, and Green and Price themselves, much of the split comes down to the fallout from the Christian-Newsom retrials after Judge Richard Baumgartner’s addiction problems came to light. Price actively supported legislation earlier this year to get rid of the state’s 13th juror rule, requiring a judge to sign off on jury verdicts—the “Chris Newsom Act”—and a bill that prevents lawyers from presenting evidence that defames a crime victim or witness—the “Channon Christian Act.” Both bills passed and have been signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam. Another piece of legislation that Price helped write, calling for random drug testing of judges, didn’t go anywhere.

Price now says there are constitutional issues with drug testing judges that he didn’t know about, and so he’s no longer in support of the legislation. But his activism in support of the victims of crime (and the families of those victims) concerns some attorneys.

Price says that if he is elected, he won’t be judging cases the way he prosecutes them.

“I recognize that is a challenge for me because I have been a prosecutor for so long,” Price says. “But I think if you go out and talk to defense attorneys who have worked with me, they will tell you I do listen. … I have a great ability to see both sides in a case.”

Price adds that he’s open to creative sentencing for some crimes and would push for more funding for drug courts and addiction-treatment programs.

“I think I’m very sensitive to how devastating violent crime can be, but on the other hand I am very mindful that we have a problem in Knox County with drug abuse … and the answer’s not always to send them off to the penitentiary,” Price says.

Green declined to comment on whether he’d be open to alternative sentencing, but he notes that his experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney will give him “a unique perspective” on the bench.

“I think it will help me. I think it gives me the perspective of knowing where each side is coming from,” Green says. “I think it’s also important to recognize that a judge is there to follow the law. He’s not there to make decisions based on what’s popular or what everybody wants to see happen.”

Although Green is running for office, he actually didn’t register to vote until 2004. He says he now regrets this.

“I have nobody to blame but me,” Green says.

General Sessions Court, Division IV

In 2008, Knox County Commission appointed Republican Patricia Hall Long to her post after Judge Bob McGee left Sessions to run for the bench in Criminal Court (where he still is today). Long was officially elected to the seat in 2010, and she’s running again this year to put the seat back on the eight-year election cycle.

Long is just one of three women on the bench in Knox County, but if her Democratic opponent George T. Underwood wins her seat, he’ll be the county’s first black judge. As in, first in history from all time.

But neither candidate wants your vote due to simple demographic appeal. Long says her experience on the bench is proven. Underwood says his extensive community involvement, combined with his legal experience, gives him an advantage over Long.

Both Underwood and Long are locals made good. Underwood attended Austin-East High School and East Tennessee State University; Long grew up in Blount County and went to Rhodes in Memphis. Both attended UT Law. And both candidates do have lengthy legal backgrounds.

Before Long became a judge, she worked in the Knox County Public Defender’s office for two years, private practice for 13 years, and the DA’s office for one year. She says she had long wanted to serve on the bench, so she made sure to experience all sides of the courtroom in her career.

Underwood started his legal career where Long ended hers—in the DA’s office, although in Hamilton County, not here. After a couple of years, Underwood moved back and worked in the city law department until 1999, when he started his own practice. For the past 15 years, Underwood says he has defended clients charged with DUIs, misdemeanors, and felonies.

Long, however, questions Underwood’s experience in criminal law.

“I’m sure Mr. Underwood is a wonderful man, but I literally had to introduce myself to him. I’ve been down there for 22 years making my living, and I’ve been on the bench, and I’ve seen every attorney that comes through there,” Long says. “The learning curve is so steep, I think that it would be very detrimental in Knox County to have someone who doesn’t have experience in that arena.”
But Underwood says he does have the experience and knowledge to succeed.

“My objective is to not let things get interjected into the decision-making process that shouldn’t be. It goes back to impartiality,” Underwood says. “Your party affiliation shouldn’t matter. What side of town you’re from shouldn’t matter. Justice should be across the board. I’m not saying anything about my opponent, but that’s what voters need to consider.”

Underwood says that if he’s elected, he’d like to introduce a split docket, so that you would either show up at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. for your day in court, instead of showing up at 9 a.m. and possibly waiting for hours. However, Long says that wouldn’t work.

“I’ve talked to all the players involved,” Long says. “It’s not feasible. The sheriff’s opposed to it, the DA’s opposed to it, the public defender’s opposed to it.”

Both Long and Underwood say they’re committed to improving technology in the courtroom and working to improve efficiency with documents and forms. Long adds that incoming Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond has talked to her about making the courtroom a test case for implementing new technology.