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VOL. 129 | NO. 131 | Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Juvenile Court Judge Race Remains Hard-Fought

By Bill Dries

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The candidates are counting down the days to the July 18 start of early voting in advance of the Aug. 7 election day.

With one more weekend of campaigning until early voting dictates a shift in tactics, the sizeable cast of the longest ballot of any Shelby County election cycle is searching at events for crowds comprised of mostly voters rather than other candidates and their campaign workers.

SUGARMON

Tarik Sugarmon’s campaign headquarters in his bid for Juvenile Court judge, at Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven, has been open for a while.

But Sugarmon’s formal opening Thursday, July 3, featured dancers, kung fu students and a barbecue truck, all outside but beneath the shade of the mall’s front entrance. And it drew a crowd that appeared to be largely supporters but slightly more civilians than campaign pros and many curious and uncommitted citizens from the nearby Kroger parking lot.

The race for the open position in Juvenile Court between Sugarmon, a City Court judge, and Dan Michael, chief magistrate of Juvenile Court, remains one of the hardest-fought campaigns on the August ballot.

“You have to earn your way into judicial positions. You get there by experience,” Sugarmon told supporters. “I’ve got the experience.”

He said Michael, who was appointed as a magistrate by outgoing Judge Curtis Person Jr. and before that by the late Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner, is too linked to problems with due process at the court.

“We have now a 50-year continuum of a system that up until recently we were the only ones that knew it was unfair,” Sugarmon said of Juvenile Court, referring to the 2012 U.S. Justice Department report that highlighted due process problems and disproportionately harsher punishment and transfer for trial as adults of African-American youths. “Help me to make change in this system. This is a crusade.”

Michael has campaigned on the need for change in the court as well, saying the reforms now being carried out by a settlement agreement among the court, the Justice Department and Shelby County government should be continued by someone who is familiar with the inner workings of the court.

Sugarmon counters that problems remain with “misinterpretations of the laws of criminal procedure and evidence.”

Meanwhile, last week there was a legal challenge in Chancery Court to the system of magistrates to hear Juvenile Court cases in addition to the Juvenile Court judge who appoints those magistrates.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of citizens including several who filed as Jane Does and John Does, is a challenge of the magistrates being able to decide cases since they aren’t elected judges.

The first hearing before Chancellor Walter Evans is July 16 in a case that is likely to still be before the court well after the Aug. 7 race for Juvenile Court judge is decided – and it could have a profound impact on whoever wins the race.

Sugarmon would not comment on the lawsuit and the points made in it. But he repeated what he has said before about examining the system of using magistrates.

“We need to really look at how we structure our court. It’s obvious that some changes need to be made,” he said. “I want to make sure the magistrates who are there have been trained in the criminal law to handle delinquency matters.”

Sugarmon has pledged that if elected, he’ll review all positions in the court and those holding the positions in a human resources audit.

He said he would also like to see magistrates volunteer an hour a month in schools. The court currently has such a program, but Sugarmon says it should be more comprehensive.

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