Six of the seven candidates for General Sessions Court judge answered reader and audience submitted questions at a public forum co-sponsored by the Times Free Press and Chattanooga Bar Association at UTC Wednesday evening.
The candidates had under two minutes to answer questions during the hour and a half long event. More than 60 people, mostly individual candidate supporters, listened to responses.
Joe DeGaetano, Valerie Epstein, Yolanda Mitchell, Ron Powers, Gary Starnes and Patricia Best Vital took part in the forum. Interim Sessions Judge David Norton, who is also a candidate, did not attend due to illness.
The candidates echoed each other's comments on questions such as if they would approve or encourage electronic recording of court hearings, how they would handle criminal defendants who make bond but claim not to be able to afford an attorney and if they will be accessible to attorneys off the bench.
With minor variations each of the six candidates said they approved of recording proceedings, would scrutinize closely requests for a court-appointed attorney and all said they would be accessible after hours to attorneys within the court rules for discussing cases.
It was in the brief opening comments and closing pitches for votes where the candidates attempted to show discernible differences.
Epstein said she wanted to promote a more open and accessible court docket so that defendants and plaintiffs in court would better understand the court functions and their responsibilities when coming to court.
"I will give everyone who comes before the court access to justice," she said.
Vital touted her legal research work and ability to approach court staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys when deciding how to improve the courtroom.
"I am committed to being fair and impartial and listening very carefully to the matter before me," she said.
Starnes repeatedly cited his experience sitting as special judge in both city and sessions courts as to why he is ready to "start from Day 1" in the judgeship.
Mitchell, a former sessions magistrate judge and prosecutor, promised to ensure the "defendant understands the process, their rights and what is going to occur" in court hearings.
Powers emphasized that community safety as his highest concern and said his role as judge would be to keep that in mind as he decides cases and sentencing.
DeGaetano stressed his work ethic and commitment to serve taxpayers by working with other judges to improve the efficiency of how Sessions Court operates.
Audience member Patrick Kellogg asked the candidates their opinions on alternative sentencing.
All candidates agreed that, where available, alternative sentencing such as probation, community service, fines and DUI school have their place instead of incarceration but not when individual offenders have high rates of recidivism.
Early voting in the election begins July 13. The election takes place Aug. 2.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...