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VOL. 129 | NO. 113 | Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Judicial Campaigns Get Testy With Endorsements

By Bill Dries

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The campaigns for judge on the August ballot are showing some signs that the restraint judicial candidates normally exercise is wearing thin.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Some of the reticence about political combat that defines local nonpartisan judicial elections is beginning to wear thin with a little more than a month until the start of early voting for the Aug. 7 elections.

At this point, the incumbents and challengers, including those seeking the five open seats on civil and criminal court benches, have been seeing a lot of each other, often at forums where the judicial candidates sometimes outnumber attendees who are not running for office or are running for nonjudicial offices.

All of those factors played into some charged moments when the Shelby County Democratic Party’s executive committee met last week to vote on endorsements in the judicial races.

The Shelby County Republican Party has endorsed candidates in the judicial races, as well.

Both local parties endorsed the following judicial candidates:

Incumbent Circuit Court Judges Gina Carol Higgins and Jerry Stokes; incumbent Criminal Court Judges Glenn Wright and Lee Coffee; and incumbent General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Tim Dwyer.

As expected, the Democratic Party endorsed Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon in the race for Juvenile Court judge, while the Republican Party endorsed Juvenile Court Chief Magistrate Judge Dan Michael.

They parted company on other judicial races, and each made no endorsement for some other positions.

For instance, Democrats endorsed state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle for Chancery Court judge. Republicans endorsed attorney Jim Newsom in the same race.

The Republican endorsements can be found at shelbygop.org, and the Democratic endorsements were to be posted this week at shelbydem.org.

The Democratic primary board’s sole duty was to label judicial candidates as Republican or Democratic based on their voting record – specifically what primaries they have voted in over several elections. The primary board’s cutoff for crossover potential was if a judicial candidate had voted in a Republican primary three or more times.

The party’s executive committee could consider factors beyond that.

Most incumbent judges do not identify themselves as Republican or Democrat and point to the nonpartisan status of the races, meaning there are no party primaries before the August general election.

From there, judicial candidates differ on whether they seek party endorsements – with many either seeking both or seeking none.

Coffee clashed with challenger Kenya Brooks before the Democratic group and came away with the endorsement despite a primary board committee labeling Coffee a Republican because he had voted in several Republican primaries, according to his voting record.

Democrats endorsed Coffee eight years ago, the last time he ran.

“I vote my conscience,” he told the group of 50.

Brooks, an attorney for 16 years, touted her experience as an attorney on criminal cases.

She was also among a crop of new judicial candidates calling for change in the local criminal justice system.

“A judge should not be angry on the bench,” she said. “There is no fairness and impartiality going on there now.”

But Coffee countered that what Brooks wasn’t telling the group is that she has only practiced in General Sessions Criminal Court and has never tried a criminal case before a jury in Shelby County Criminal Court.

“Ms. Brooks has no business being a Criminal Court judge. It’s ridiculous,” Coffee said. “She has never set foot in Criminal Court.”

Fellow Criminal Court incumbent Paula Skahan and challenger Nigel Lewis had a similar encounter.

“We need to do better,” Lewis said of the local criminal justice system. “Experience does not equal wisdom. Either we have change or we don’t.”

Skahan, a judge for 10 years, touted a record that included work as a criminal defense attorney working on capital murder cases where the death penalty was sought by prosecutors.

“I’m not aware of Nigel Lewis ever handling any murder cases,” she said.

“None of my clients ever got sent to death row,” Skahan added, saying she remembered judges who would appoint inexperienced attorneys to represent those accused in such cases, knowing they were more likely to get the death penalty. As a judge, Skahan said she has worked to reverse the practice.

“I would not appoint Nigel Lewis to handle a capital case,” she said. “I might in a few years.”

Still to come in the political customs of the judicial races are the judicial rankings from a poll of Memphis Bar Association members. It isn’t a list of endorsements, but a rating by attorneys of judges across several categories.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Bar Association leaders will announce Friday, June 13, their first ever evaluation of Tennessee Supreme Court candidates on the statewide August ballot for yes/no retention votes.

The three justices on the ballot for retention votes this year face organized opposition, including from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

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