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VOL. 129 | NO. 15 | Thursday, January 23, 2014

Judicial Campaign Season Emerges With Different Rules

By Bill Dries

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Fundraisers and other campaign events for judicial candidates are difficult.

Sometimes there are more candidates for other offices at them than citizens with no direct political interest who are undecided on who to vote for. And more so than in any other field of candidates, judges are limited by ethics in what they can say when trying to persuade someone to vote for them.

Several judicial races have also entered the campaign season, including the recent kickoff of David Pool’s campaign for General Sessions Civil Court judge Division 3.

(Daily News File)

When David Pool kicked off his campaign Sunday, Jan. 19, for General Sessions Civil Court judge Division 3, he had another hurdle. The fundraiser at Memphis Catholic High School was at the same time the Denver Broncos were playing the New England Patriots.

Pool not only drew a crowd of more than 100. Most of those in the crowd were not candidates, which is exactly the kind of crowd that candidates from other races hope to encounter as they assemble a calendar of events to drop in on.

Pool, who is general counsel for Drexel Chemical Co., is a Catholic High alum, and many in the crowd were fellow classmates as well as fellow attorneys.

Pool also did something judicial candidates rarely do. He went over the Tennessee Bar Association’s guide for what to look for in judging a candidate who wants to be a judge.

“I know that I will be an honest judge,” he said. “My experience is personal injury, collections, criminal law, contracts, defamation, family law, juvenile, real property, copyright, trademark, business law, employment labor, landlord-tenant, regulatory.”

Because of the ethical constraints and the eight-year cycle that judges campaign on, they aren’t usually greeted with excitement by incumbents.

It’s closer to a sense of dread mixed with a frustration about the low turnout judicial races garner. It can be lower than the turnout in other races on the same ballot because of the phenomenon politicos call “ballot falloff.” The races toward the bottom of the ballot are susceptible to a fall off in the number of voters who participate.

The touch screen machines used in Shelby County don’t show the full ballot on the screen. Instead voters go from page to page. But the fall-off effect can be the same after so many pages.

“People need to pay more attention to the judicial elections,” said Juvenile Court judge candidate Dan Michael. “Educate yourself. Know who the judges are. Know what their experience is.”

Experience isn’t something judicial rivals in the same race will debate directly. But it is an undercurrent in campaigns where such references are always guarded.

And Michael talked about it in reference to other races.

“The only criteria to become a judge in Tennessee is a law license. You don’t have to have experience,” he said. “Here in the last few elections, people have run for judgeships who are six months to two years out of law school. If you’ve never practiced an admiralty or you’ve never done a divorce or you’ve never tried a murder trial and you run for one of those positions, it’s a little frightening to me that I might wind up in front of you – maybe as a victim.”

The other issue roiling the judicial candidates as a whole is a bill pending in the Tennessee legislature by Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown to abolish Divisions 1 and 5 of Shelby County Circuit Court and take the races for those positions off the August election ballot.

Incumbent Judges John McCarroll has not pulled a petition to run for re-election in Division 1 and Division 5 Judge Kay Robilio resigned effective this past September.

Kelsey, an attorney, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Jan. 21, Kelsey said he proposed abolishing two divisions of the court because of a drop in cases filed in Circuit Court with changes that shifted workers compensation claims to administrative hearings and a drop in medical malpractice filings with tort reform in Tennessee.

“I believe in limited government and I believe that we should promote limited government when we can,” Kelsey said before the committee vote that sent the bill to the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee.

The Memphis Bar Association joined the opposition expressed privately by many of the judicial incumbents across the different courts locally.

The bar statement issued last week says eliminating two of the nine divisions in Circuit Court is not “warranted or prudent given the population of Shelby County and the work performed by these judges.”

“Although other communities in this state may have valid reasons for requesting additional judges, the consideration of those requests should not come at the expense of Shelby County residents,” the statement reads.

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