2014 Elections: Judicial Races, Part 2

Out of the five contested judicial races in Knox County, there are two that have drawn more scrutiny and upset than the others. One is Republican Bill Ailor’s challenge of Circuit Court judge Harold Wimberly, who has been on the bench since 1987. The other is Republican Clarence Pridemore’s attempt to replace Chancellor Daryl Fansler, who was first elected in 1998.

There’s plenty of interest in the 4th Circuit Court race, too, where Democrat Daniel Kidd is battling Republican Greg McMillan over the opportunity to replace longtime judge Bill Swann in the court that handles most of the divorces in the county.

Still, it’s the first two that have many local lawyers up in arms (metaphorically speaking, at least). They’re convinced that there’s only one reason Ailor and Pridemore are running—the Tennessee Republican Party’s “Red to the Roots” campaign.

The push by GOP chairman Chris Devaney and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to get a Republican candidate on the ballot in every single race in the state with a Democratic incumbent has resulted in more Republicans on local ballots in 2014 than ever before. A February press release announcing the plan’s success calls it the next step in “the voter-led Republican conversion of Tennessee.”

“Tennesseans want the success we’ve seen at the state level—be it our record on economic development, our historic gains in the classroom, or any number of other achievements—brought to the local level. They’re tired of Democrats and liberals who hide behind the Independent label mismanaging taxpayer funds,” Devaney comments in the release.

But when it comes to judicial races, does Tennessee’s “economic development” or “historic gains in the classroom” under Gov. Bill Haslam (“achievements” that are questioned by many, we should note) even matter? Shouldn’t the main qualification for a good judge be someone who understands the law, not how someone votes?

“In the 30-something years I’ve been practicing law, it’s never been a partisan issue in judicial races,” Fansler says. “I’ve been totally out of politics for 16 years, and now I find myself thrust back in it. I don’t want to be, but I am.”

Chancellor, Part II

Fansler, 62, was elected to the bench in Chancery Court 16 years ago. By most accounts, he’s done a good job in a very complicated court—he was recently endorsed by 26 past presidents of the Knoxville Bar Association.

“I haven’t gotten many complaints. Even the losers will say they got a fair trial,” Fansler says.

Chancery Court is unique in that it handles a wide range of thorny legal issues like boundary disputes, intricate probates, divorces, contracts, and certain other lawsuits. One local lawyer, a Republican, told us, when describing the difficulty of the position, “I’ve been practicing for more than a decade, and there’s no way I know enough law to do that job.”

Nonetheless, Fansler’s opponent is confident he can do the job with less than four years of legal experience. Pridemore, 39, declined an interview, stating he was too busy, and he did not return repeated phone calls. However, he did e-mail the following statement that says his “Top Priorities” are:

“1) To treat each and every person that comes before Chancery Court, be it the newest attorney in town, the oldest attorney in town or a person representing themselves, with the same amount of dignity and respect

“2) To help alleviate the backlog of divorce cases in the Knox County Court system by offering to hear additional divorce cases in Chancery Court.”

When we read this statement to Fansler, he almost laughed.

“That shows the absolute ignorance he has about this court. We three chancellors have been, for the 16 years I’ve been on the bench, taking every divorce case filed in chancery court. We hear as many divorce cases between the three of us as the 4th Circuit does,” Fansler says. “I’m not going sugarcoat that—if he makes that statement, it tells me he knows absolutely nothing about what we do.”

We called Knox County GOP chair Ruthie Kuhlman to ask if she recruited Pridemore to be on the ballot; she declined to comment. But the deputy executive director of the state party, Michael Sullivan, was willing to talk.

Sullivan says having a Republican candidate in every race will “push to help voters help educate themselves” and “helps voters understand who’s in the office.” He says judicial positions are “more than just deciding a court case,” and having a party affiliation lets voters know that the candidates are likely to support issues important to them.

Like what? Like taxes.

Sullivan says since the Republican Party is opposed to higher taxes and in favor of efficient government, voters can trust a Republican judicial candidate will be a wiser steward of taxpayer money in the court system than a Democratic candidate.

Seriously?

“That is a generalization that voters can make, yes,” Sullivan says.

We asked Sullivan if a knowledge of the law might be a more important factor when evaluating judicial candidates than an opposition to raising taxes. He replied that it’s “up to voters to decide who’s qualified.” We told Sullivan that Pridemore doesn’t seem to understand what actually happens in the court over which he wants to preside. His response: Pridemore meets the state requirements to run for the office, so he’s qualified to serve in the office.

Meanwhile, Fansler’s hoping to get enough Republican support to stay in office.

“I think even lawyers who are heavily involved in Republican party politics realize that partisan politics don’t have a place in what we do,” Fansler says. “A former Republican county officeholder—who I won’t name, but he’s not a lawyer—approached me and said, ‘My family and I will be supporting you. This young man needs to learn this is not an entry-level position.' I think people see that.”

Circuit Court, Division II

Like Fansler, Wimberly is firmly convinced the only reason Ailor is taking him on is the “D” next to his name.

“No question about it. There are only two Democrats left as incumbents in Knox County. There’s no question,” Wimberly says.

But Ailor, who’s been a lawyer for 24 years, says he wasn’t recruited by Kuhlman or anyone else.

“I’ve had several people for years ask me to run,” Ailor says. “I had not talked to anyone from the Republican party until I actually filed.”

Wimberly’s been on the bench for 27 years and has an exceptional appellate record. (That means the majority of his decisions are not overturned if they are appealed, which is generally a sign of a judge who understands the law.) He even inspires such devotion among the legal crowd that he has both his regular campaign signs and also “Republicans for Wimberly” signs.

“I’m the only one who’s even tried a jury case. I’m not going to sit here and cast aspersions on him, but he does not have a record of anything at this level of the court, period,” Wimberly says. “Remember when the NFL locked out their referees, and they thought just anybody could do it? It didn’t turn out too well.”

Ailor, however, says his legal experience has prepared him for the bench, as has his work as an administrator adjudicating special-education lawsuits for the state Department of Education.

“The rulings were similar to what a chancellor does,” Ailor says. “Those were very specialized cases that gave me insight into being a judge.”

But when asked why he thought he’d do a better job than Wimberly, Ailor couldn’t give a good answer.

“That’s a loaded question. I’m not here saying he’s done a bad job, but I’m qualified to do the job. I’m qualified under the law. … It’s not about being more qualified than he is, it’s about, I’m qualified,” Ailor says.

When we asked for elaboration on why a voter would think he’d do the best job on the bench, Ailor blew up.

“How do you know as voter who that is? That’s a subjective question! Every voter’s got to make their own determination based on my experience and based on his experience,” Ailor says. “Just because his experience is different than mine doesn’t make it better.”

Wimberly dismisses that idea, noting that he has possibly the most judicial experience of any judge in Circuit Court in the past century.

“If you make a mistake in any of these races, it’s an eight-year mistake. Kind of scary,” Wimberly says.

Circuit Court, Division IV

Unlike the other two races, very few people are questioning the qualifications of Kidd or McMillan to sit on the bench—except the candidates themselves, of course.

The 4th Circuit Court is a weird beast, like no other court in the entire state of Tennessee, in that it solely handles divorces and orders of protection. As Tennessee has the sixth-highest divorce rate in the nation, according to the most recent Census data, that means it stays pretty busy.

Swann, who is retiring, has drawn controversy for some of his stringent requirements for parents splitting up, including mandatory attendance of lengthy parenting classes. The court also has a record of long delays and a backlogged docket. Both McMillan and Kidd say they plan to shake things up.

McMillan and Kidd both have practiced family law for years, the former since 1992 and the latter since 1997. McMillan’s practice also includes other types of litigation, which he says gives him a broader outlook for the bench. Kidd says his sole focus on family law proves he understands the 4th Circuit better.

Both candidates have released lengthy and detailed plans of changes they would make to the functioning of the court. Both say they will change the parenting class requirements, and both say they’ll make changes to docket scheduling to speed up trial dates.

Kidd and McMillan do vary on some of the specifics. Kidd wants to make big changes to the way temporary parenting plans are handled. As it stands now, the first party to file one gets his or her plan automatically approved, and it can be up to nine months before there’s an actual hearing on the custody arrangements, which Kidd says has become a “burden to litigants.”

“Under my changes … the other side will have an opportunity to come in the next motion day and say, ‘I don’t like this plan, it’s not fair, it’s not in my child’s best interests for these reasons,’” Kidd says. “That really will speed things up and even the playing field from the very beginning.”

McMillan says he’s open to similar changes, but not necessarily as drastic as Kidd is proposing.

“You’d be surprised there is a split of opinion from the Bar,” McMillan says. “Some of them like [the current rule] very much. … What is important is that if there is a request for a hearing, you have it within 15 or 30 days, so they don’t go for months and months.”

Both candidates also say they want to make big changes to the way orders of protection are handled, including possibly eliminating—or at least restricting the use of—social orders of protection.

The print edition of this story misidentifies the court over which Daryl Fansler presides. It is Division II of Chancery, not Division III.