published Friday, April 19th, 2013

Greg Beck: Politics behind Juvenile Court judge choice

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

After last week’s appointment of Rob Philyaw as the next Juvenile Court judge, one Hamilton County commissioner is crying foul.

On April 11, commissioners appointed Philyaw over two other finalists — current Juvenile Magistrate Troy McDougal and attorney Curtis Bowe — to replace Suzanne Bailey, who is retiring.

Chairman Larry Henry had predicted a lengthy process, but Philyaw was appointed after one round of votes.

Greg Beck, one of three commissioners who supported Bowe, said the ease with which Philyaw was appointed was a telltale sign that he was the political favorite.

In February, early in the selection process, Beck and other commissioners expressed support for diversity on the bench. Then, Beck said whoever was selected should “understand that population and the demographics” served by the court.

Philyaw and McDougal are white. Bowe is black.

“Curtis Bowe was a highly qualified candidate who unfortunately was a victim of Hamilton County politics,” Beck said. “... The commission appointed the least-qualified candidate of the three finalists nominated.”

According to candidates’ resumes and interviews, McDougal has worked as a magistrate in Juvenile Court for 11 years. Bowe was a Juvenile Court magistrate from 2004 to 2008 and still practices law regularly in the court. Philyaw told commissioners most of his work was outside Juvenile Court, but he did represent children in delinquency cases and parents in parental rights cases. Philyaw is, however, a sitting city judge in Graysville, Tenn.

In addition to experience, Beck questioned Philyaw’s motivation.

“You have to have the heart for this court, dealing with these kids and their families,” Beck said.

Philyaw applied to be appointed General Sessions judge after former Judge Bob Moon’s death last year.

Philyaw garnered only one vote, from Commissioner Jim Fields, who nominated him for the Juvenile Court seat. Philyaw said then he would run for the Sessions post in 2014.

Beck declined to say whether he thinks the five commissioners who voted for Philyaw made an agreement, but he said the one-round vote was “remarkable.”

Chairman Larry Henry, who voted for Philyaw along with Fields, Marty Haynes, Joe Graham and Fred Skillern, said Tuesday there was no prior agreement.

“It didn’t have anything to do with politics. You can always call politics when you don’t get who you want,” Henry said of Beck’s comments.

Henry said he picked Philyaw over McDougal and Bowe because he “particularly liked what [Philyaw] said about truancy and curfew enforcement.”

Henry said he was just as surprised as Beck at how quickly the appointment was made.

“I felt that probably out of the three, one of them would get it. I really expected a split vote; we just didn’t get it,” Henry said.

Warren Mackey, who voted for Bowe along with Beck and Tim Boyd, said he didn’t believe politics were in play. He said there were three strong candidates and each commissioner had his own specific criteria.

Graham said he didn’t believe politics were involved at all. He also said Beck should have raised concerns in public, before Beck voted to approve Philyaw’s ultimate appointment.

Skillern said he voted for Philyaw because he felt he was best for the job. But he was sensitive to Beck’s suspicions.

“I’ve backed winners, and I’ve backed losers. And I’ve felt like that when I backed losers, too,” Skillern said.

Haynes said no one attempted to influence his vote. He liked Philyaw’s ideas about enforcing the curfew for juveniles and unifying truancy standards for area schools.

Chester Bankston was the sole vote for McDougal. He said he was surprised McDougal didn’t get more votes, but he didn’t suspect anything nefarious was going on.

“The man with the most votes won. That’s my sentiments,” Bankston said. “McDougal’s been there for 11 years and has a lot of experience. But I guess they just wanted a change.”

Boyd and Fields did not return phone calls for comment.

Bailey announced in February that she would retire April 30. Philyaw will hold her seat until the term ends in August 2014 and then will have to seek re-election to keep the post.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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