Chief Juvenile Court Magistrate Dan Michael says he is prepared if his opposition in the race for Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court judge tries to make an issue of reforms underway at the court.
“If the backdrop of the Department of Justice issues is used as a wedge by any opponent, I’m ready to address it head on,” Michael said Wednesday, Jan. 15, after an East Memphis fundraiser that drew a group of 60.
The non-partisan judicial race is on the Aug. 7 ballot. The race for Juvenile Court judge begins approximately a year and a half after the U.S. Justice Department completed a comprehensive investigation of the court that began in August 2009 and covered five years of court records and data, including 66,000 case files.
The DOJ concluded there were “serious and systemic failures in the juvenile justice system in Memphis and Shelby County that violate the constitutional rights of children appearing before the court.”
The report also found that black children disproportionately faced harsher punishments than white children and were disproportionately transferred to the adult criminal justice system for trial as adults.
But the first of its kind report in American juvenile justice also praised Judge Curtis Person Jr. for cooperating in the investigation and undertaking reforms that began when Person took office in 2006 following the more-than-40 years the court was presided over by Judge Kenneth Turner. Person is not seeking re-election in 2014.
By the end of 2012, the DOJ, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Person had signed a memorandum of understanding on further reforms to specifically remedy the problems cited in the report.
Person said he didn’t agree with the broad conclusions of the report but nevertheless pledged his cooperation in the further reforms.
The reforms have included independent legal representation through the Shelby County Public Defender’s office of indigent juveniles and stricter due process rules for detaining juveniles, notice of specific charges and how long they can be held before a hearing.
“If that is the issue that is raised, bring it on,” Michael said of the report’s harsh conclusions. “I don’t feel like I’m part of the problem. I feel like I am the solution. I’ve been there long enough. I know the system. I know what needs to be changed.”
Michael was first appointed a magistrate by Turner in 1997 and has been one of the referees or magistrates that hear cases in Juvenile Court for 17 years.
“I am going to work my heart out for this race. I intend to win this race,” Michael told supporters. “I am not looking back. I’m only looking forward.”
Like Michael, City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon has pulled a qualifying petition in the race, completing what is expected to be a spirited match-up that will have partisan overtones, even though there are no partisan primaries for the office.
Local Democratic Party leaders have had the office on their priority list since Person defeated former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman in 2006. And Michael is expected to benefit from local Republican Party backing in one form or another.
The DOJ findings are already being raised in another race.
Outgoing Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks, who made the formal complaint that prompted the investigation, is running in the Democratic primary for Juvenile Court clerk. She has been critical of the memorandum of understanding and hasn’t hesitated to say the court needs a break from leadership that, since Turner became judge in the 1960s, has come up through the ranks of the court structure.
“I feel good about the staff and what the staff has done so far,” Michael said, citing progress reports from monitors that are part of the agreement. “They saw a court that was a national model court. … We had all these things going for us and I think they realized that they could use that to help propel us even further.”