Until David Norton curtailed his campaign for election to the interim Sessions Court post for undisclosed health reasons, he was seen as the candidate to beat. His March appointment to the job by the County Commission had bestowed the aura of incumbency, and a preference poll by the Chattanooga Bar Association had favored him by a wide margin over some highly qualified opponents. But Norton's recent health impairment, at age 66, has radically changed that dynamic in recent weeks.
Beyond the fact that the County Commission's elevation of an assistant county government attorney should not be the criteria for a judicial election -- and the prospect in 2014 of an eight-year term -- there is now plenty of room, and good reason, for consideration of other candidates.
Most of the other six candidates for the Sessions Court vacancy are well qualified and perfectly able to step into the job. Chief among these are Gary Starnes, Joe DeGaetano, Ron Powers and Valerie Epstein. All possess solid legal credentials for the position in terms of experience, breadth of legal practice, professional and educational attainment, judicial temperament and civic involvement. Each would make a fine judge.
Beyond these core criteria, Starnes stands out for his ready and insightful interest in ways to improve the general operations of Sessions Courts. First and foremost, we believe Starnes would be a good and efficient judge in his own courtroom. He possesses deep background in both criminal and civil practice, and he is held in high regard by the legal community. He also is an uniquely strong proponent of introducing computer technology for case-file management to the larger Sessions Court system, among other reforms, and that sets him apart.
Sessions Courts need such attention. There are five Sessions Courts, and the judges in each rotate duties: three conduct criminal court each week, and one presides over a civil court, regularly leaving one of the five to handle scant miscellaneous duties. Lax leadership, outdated management and an inefficient, paper-based case-file system have long resulted in Sessions Courts and judges known to work short days, close early and leave a mounting backlog.
The system's docket-scheduling inefficiencies are an inherent factor in the courts' rut of routine inefficiency. They lead to poor management of police officers' time for testimony, driving up police overtime costs; to judges who repeatedly pass cases for inadequate reasons, worsening the backlog; and to inadequate preparation and case management by judges, prosecutors and attorneys.
The latter also allows repeat-defendants, whose case files are inadequately reviewed, to get undeserved suspended sentences. And that breeds disregard for the law, and all too frequently results in serious crimes by defendants free on suspended sentences. That's confirmed by defendants' records in some recent gang shootings.
Starnes recognizes all these deficiencies. He cites superior case management and computer-based court systems in Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta as examples and models for a long-needed shift to a computer-based case-file system for Sessions Court. He reasonably would add capacity for recordings of important court hearings, and use of remote on-screen hearings as needed.
A shift to computer-enhanced operations would, admittedly, require a capital investment from county government to the Criminal Court Clerk's office -- which oversees the criminal files of the Sessions Court Clerk's office. But it would provide a significant range of general improvements in the management of the 37,000 criminal cases and the 14,000 civil cases that arrive annually in Sessions Court.
Sessions judges, for example, could better organize their dockets, and they and attorneys could readily review important cases to improve their decision making in bench trial and hearings. Computer-based files would help judges and attorneys track repeat-defendants' records and improve the appropriate use of suspended sentences vs. detention and jail. They would significantly aid setting of courts' dockets, and the efficient use of testimony by police officers.
Starnes, to be sure, could not dictate such reforms, nor could he demand a county appropriation to fund an improved case-management system. But he could serve as an energetic advocate and useful facilitator with the other four Sessions Court judges to prompt long-needed reforms in the interest of an improved justice system, and reduced time and costs. Sessions Court, and the public, need such an advocate. For that reason, we urge the election of Starnes for Sessions Court Judge.