2014 Primaries: Criminal Court Clerk

The candidates all agree on the clean-up job ahead, though each has different approaches

The scandals surrounding Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey's office have turned what's usually a low-profile race into one of the most talked about primaries of the year. Three Republicans are running to replace McCroskey—and no Democrats—so although he won't be sworn in until September, the winner will be determined on May 6.

Two lawyers, Steve Williams and Jason Hunnicutt, state that their legal experience is what's needed to turn the office around. County Commissioner Mike Hammond says his business and management experience would be the best fit to restructure the department. But all three men agree on one thing—that the clerk's office is in somewhat of a shambles. Whoever gets elected has a long, challenging slog in front of him.

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The title may say "Criminal Court clerk," but it's somewhat of a misnomer. The clerk does preside over the offices of Knox County Criminal Court, but the position also supervises the Criminal Divisions of General Sessions Court, and the Fourth Circuit Court, which handles all divorces, child support, and orders of protection. That's a lot of cases, a lot of fines and fees, and a whole lot of paperwork. And right now, a whole lot of that isn't computerized.

"There's going to be another mistake any day. To blame it all on Joy won't solve the problem," Williams says. "Number one, we have got to upgrade the technology—at least move it into the 20th century."

Williams, 61, says he wants to have real-time data entry in the Criminal and Fourth Circuit Courts, along with a complete overhaul of all three office's computer systems. He plans to work with the county's IT department to do this, and he says he'll look into free federal software to make the systems run smoothly while also integrating with the county's Justice Information Management System, or JIMS.

"JIMS is really out of date, but it's the best we have," Williams says.

Hammond, 61, says if he's elected May 6, he'll be in County Mayor Tim Burchett's office on May 7 asking for an analysis of the technology, and then he'd spend the summer studying best practices in other clerk offices, so that when he's sworn in this fall, he will have a plan ready to go.

"If we're going to make changes, we need to make them quickly," Hammond says.

He also says "the sloppy record keeping" has to go. There will be a complete reorganization of the filing system, too—Hammond says it's not even consistent by office.

Hunnicutt, 41, has similar plans to overhaul the technology, and he hopes to hire an in-house IT staffer to help it run smoothly.

"We've got to have it uniform," Hunnicutt says. "Right now you have employees tallying fees by hand, and so you have situations where you have two identical cases, with two identical outcomes, and two different court costs. That shouldn't happen."

All three candidates say they'd improve the clerk's website, so that one can both pay fees online and view dockets, among other options. And all three candidates admit the upgrades will cost money, but they argue that the improved consistency and organization will allow them to also restructure the collections arm of the office, meaning more income could follow.

"If I have to go to the mayor and Commission for extra cash, I'll do it," Hammond says. "We would easily repay it through efficiency and collections."

Williams says the office been collecting a technology fee for years and hasn't used it, so that would go a long way towards covering the costs.

The men also all agree that once the new technology is in place, the staff will need massive retraining.

"I want to train and retrain and retrain," Williams says. "Some of the people that work there are inadequately trained. And some are just deadwood."

Hammond also says any employees who can't keep up with the changes will be let go.

"I believe that everyone needs the opportunity to prove themselves," Hammond says. "But I want to redo the entire organization of the system."

Hunnicutt says he thinks many of the staffing problems can be solved by moving people around to different positions. He also wants to cross-train more employees, so that if Sessions has a full docket one day and the Fourth Circuit doesn't, there can be more employees on duty where the work is.

Hammond also supports cross-training staff, but he says he wants to sit down with all of the judges—there will be some new ones after the elections—and discuss the level of staff appropriate for each of the three offices.

"I want to make sure they have the people they need," Hammond says.

Hammond also stresses the office needs to become more transparent.

"The public's trust in that office is almost nonexistent," Hammond says. "I'm going to be asking for a complete audit."

He says that in addition to improved workplace efficiency, he'll eliminate the questionable expenses for which McCroskey has come under fire, including getting rid of the clerk's travel allowance.

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Still, as similar as their end goals might be, all three candidates have very different backgrounds and proposed management styles.

Hammond is probably the most well-known candidate, thanks to his two terms on Commission and his decades in broadcasting. But he's no shoe-in for the office, as McCroskey's woes have convinced many voters that her replacement should be someone with a more sophisticated understanding of the law. However, Hammond says that's nonsense.

"The notion that somehow a lawyer has to do this job is ridiculous," Hammond says. "The vast majority of counties in this state do not have clerks who are lawyers. I see this as a management issue."

Hammond points out that the two largest criminal courts in the state, Davidson and Shelby Counties, both have clerks who are not lawyers. (Hamilton County's clerk does have a J.D.)

"I don't think I'm a dumb person—I have conversations with judges all the time. Will I know everything about the office? It'd be disingenuous to say that I would," Hammond says. "But I really don't see it as a problem."

Hammond says his decades of management experience gives him the ability to deal with budgets and with staff. Hunnicutt also says the office needs to be organized more like a business, with an office manager under him, but he says legal expertise really is needed.

"You deal with laws on a daily basis, laws that affect someone's life," Hunnicutt says. "I work with the office hand in hand on a daily basis. I've seen the morale deteriorate. … I'm willing to get down there with them to improve the attitudes."

Hunnicutt is an assistant district attorney, but Williams says his extra years of experience—he's been practicing law in Knoxville since the mid-1980s—would give him an edge in the office.

"I had been approached many times to run for judge, but I thought this was a better fit," Williams says. "I work in all of those courts. … I get along with everyone, and I've been around longer than Jason. The buck stops with me."

Questions have been raised about Williams' personal finances—the IRS filed tax liens against him in 2008 and 2011 of a combined $24,562.89 in unpaid taxes from 2003 to 2005. Williams says he's working to pay off the debt and owes about $16,000 currently. The problems arose, he says, because his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001.

"I was having to pay so much money for her insurance and so much money for her medication—it broke me," Williams says, tearing up.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Williams took in $3,374 in donations in the first quarter, including a $1,000 donation to himself, and $950 since then.

Hunnicutt raised $9,300 in the first quarter, including $1,000 from McCroskey's campaign fund balance, $500 from prominent criminal defense attorney Greg Isaacs, and two $1,500 donations from attorneys Tommy Hindman and Marcos Garza. But in the past month, Hunnicutt brought in a whopping $15,370, including lots of donations from his fellow attorneys in the DA's office and the public defender's office.

Most of Hunnicutt's and Williams' expenses have been on signs and mailers, but Hammond is going big, with $1,500 on robocalls and $5,005 for television ads in the past month (along with $410 to himself in gasoline and $257 in meals). Hammond raised just $1,700 in the last reporting period, but in the first quarter he raised $11,925—although apparently the only attorneys who donated were Arthur Seymour ($200), Thomas McAdams ($150), and Andrew Owens ($200).

An earlier version of this story said the Criminal Court clerk supervises General Sessions civil cases under $10,000. That used to be the case a few years back but is no longer.