VOL. 116 | NO. 77 | Friday, April 19, 2002
Going the distance
Going the distance
By MARY DANDO
The Daily News
When Phyllis Gardner was sworn in as a Shelby County General Sessions civil court judge Feb. 18, it was the culmination of everything she had ever done in her life.
"I had always thought being a judge would be something I would enjoy. I didnt know how much. It is truly the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I look forward to coming to work each day," she said.
Gardner, 51, succeeds former colleague Bill Hackett who gave her a congratulatory cigar when she won her first case as an assistant district attorney.
"I kept that cigar in my desk for 22 years until it disintegrated," she said.
Apart from hearing landlord/tenant and debtor/creditor disputes, she also adjudicates emergency mental commitments. In a way her life has come full circle.
Gardner began her career as a medical social worker in John Gaston Hospital where she worked for three years. With a masters degree in rehabilitation counseling, she went to work for the states division of vocational rehabilitation and that experience sent her to law school.
"I became very concerned about the rights of handicapped people. That was the initial reason I went to law school. I decided someone had to champion the rights of the physically afflicted," she said.
After graduating from the University of Memphis law school, she began a 25-year career as a prosecutor in the district attorneys office.
She was the second woman to be appointed as assistant district attorney, and worked for three district attorneys.
"It was a privilege. It was a wonderful experience to be able to give back to this county," she said.
In October, she was appointed chief prosecutor in charge of the fraud and economic crime unit. She resigned to take her seat on the bench.
The darkest days in Gardners career were in the 1980s when she prosecuted a case involving charges of child sexual abuse at the Georgian Hills day care center in Frayser.
She admits the case took a terrible toll on her and her family.
"It was a hard-fought battle and people became very polarized in the community. That was unfortunate. It was a very volatile, emotional issue," she said.
"I dont step away from things, I dont take the easy way out."
On the positive side, the case resulted in the setting up of the Child Advocacy Center. Laws were enacted in 1985, setting up child review teams, she said.
"Im proud to have been involved with Georgian Hills because there was a cycle that was stopped," she said.
Another source of pride for Gardner was when she and fellow prosecutor Tom Henderson won a trial award in a double homicide case Payne v. Tennessee. At the U.S. Supreme Court level, it reversed existing law and now allows the admissibility of victim impact testimony.
Outside of her job, her greatest passions are her children and running.
A possible third is her golden retriever, Tucker.
Her children are Wills (William Stephen), a ninth grade student at Memphis University School, and Caroline, who won a Hunt scholarship and is a freshman at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
She rises most mornings before dawn and runs through her East Memphis neighborhood.
A seasoned runner, she has taken part in two New York City marathons, and also ran in the Memphis marathon in 1989.
Apart from the time she spends each day on the bench, Gardner is focused on being elected judge in the Aug. 1 contest.
Last year, she was narrowly defeated by defense attorney J.C. McLin, when Judge Joe Brown vacated his seat in Criminal Court Div. 9.
She hopes the fact she is running for office as the incumbent will ensure her return to the bench.
"I want to say that not only do I want this job, Ive been doing this job and I am really working hard, and I want to continue doing so," she said.
She files her petition for office today, she has her committee organized and shes ready to go.