published Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Selection of judge pushed back to April

A new pope likely will be ruling the Vatican before the Hamilton County Commission begins the process of replacing Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Wednesday the "official process" of selecting a replacement for Bailey will not start until early April. Bailey announced this month she would resign on April 30 after a three-decade career in Juvenile Court.

This plan is a departure from what Henry said immediately after learning Bailey would leave the bench.

Henry said on Feb. 4 that commissioners would advertise the position and begin interviews in a matter of weeks.

On Wednesday, however, he said 30 days will be enough time to find a new judge.

"What we will probably do -- and I haven't spoken with the commission about this -- is probably by mid-April we will be into the interviews. Applications will be advertised around the first of April," Henry said.

Henry clarified that the interviews he's referring to are those that would be handled in public. Individual commissioners may meet with candidates privately, he said.

"We were pretty clearly given an April 30 date. Any way you cut it, that's two and a half months off. We'll have plenty of time prior to that to interview people," Henry said.

An appointment could be made as early as the commission's May 1 meeting, one day after Bailey's retirement date, Henry said.

THE TIME LINE

Commissioners Fred Skillern and Tim Boyd agreed a month was sufficient time to decide.

"I think it's ample time -- 30 days -- to interview and appoint someone. This don't need to be drug out any more than that," Skillern said.

Boyd's main concern was ensuring that Juvenile Court works closely with other agencies.

"You've got to have someone who's going to interface with the gang task force. A lot of the juveniles who end up there end up in the gangs," he said.

But some commissioners said the process may need to start more quickly.

Commissioners Marty Haynes and Chester Bankston said the judgeship is too important to rush.

"Initially, I had hoped we would start a little earlier than April," Haynes said. "I do think this is one of the more important appointments that we will make, because of the impact it will have on the at-risk youth in Hamilton County."

Bankston said the commission may get too many candidates to handle in a month.

"Not knowing how many are going to apply, I think we ought to do something with it soon," Bankston said.

Commissioner Joe Graham initially said he wanted to start the process this week, but deferred to Henry's decision.

"My only concern is that we have ample time," Graham said.

Other commissioners are less concerned with when the appointment process starts and more concerned with how it's handled.

Commissioner Warren Mackey said he wants a "level playing field" for all who apply.

"My thinking is, I'm looking forward to see if the commission can join -- just one time -- and have all those interested to present themselves, sort of on a level playing field," Mackey said. "I don't particularly want to meet with all the candidates one-on-one."

THE QUALIFICATIONS

Commissioners have different expectations about qualifications for candidates.

Henry and Bankston are looking for a judge who will be tough on crime.

Henry declined to explain fully what he was looking for in a candidate, because he didn't want to give potential candidates guidance before interviews. But he said he wants a judge who would help reduce recidivism in what he called a "turnstile" system. At the same time, Henry said the candidate must have experience and knowledge about the other duties of the court, such as removing children from dangerous homes.

"It's going to be a tough decision," he said. "It's a unique judgeship. For the criminal aspect, I'm going to be looking for someone who's tough on enforcing juvenile law. And also, they need a clear understanding of how the system works."

Bankston also cautioned against sparing the proverbial rod.

"I want someone who's not going to just slap them on the wrist and let them out -- then, years later, when they kill somebody and get 20 years -- I want someone who's going to be tough early on," he said.

Commissioners Gregory Beck, Mackey and Graham are looking for reduced recidivism, too, but they say a jail cell isn't always the answer.

Mackey said the candidate's ability to relate to the youths involved in the court will be just as important as his or her legal expertise.

"For me personally, I want to look at the population who's going to be the clients in the court, then find the candidate who is most experienced and equipped to work with that population," Mackey said.

Beck shared Mackey's sentiments. He would like to see a judge who is sensitive to the needs of those who come to the court -- children and families -- and specifically someone with experience in Juvenile Court.

"[We need] absolutely someone with experience in Juvenile Court and with a broad understanding of the plight of our young people," Beck said.

Commissioner Jim Fields declined to comment on any aspect of the appointment process.

A simple majority, five of nine votes, would seal the appointment until the August 2014 elections, when someone will be elected to a full eight-year term. The job comes with a $156,000 salary.

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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