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VOL. 122 | NO. 181 | Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fowlkes to Take Oath Friday

Will become county's newest criminal court judge

By Bill Dries

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For most of his career in Memphis, John T. Fowlkes Jr. has worked Downtown, within a five-block area that is the seat of government for Memphis and Shelby County. It's also ground zero for the local criminal justice system.

Over the last five years, Fowlkes remained physically close to the world of courtrooms and crime and punishment. But his role as the county's chief administrative officer was mentally removed from the world he knew for more than 20 years.

Fowlkes returned in late August with a new office just two blocks from the County Building. He is the county's newest criminal court judge. He takes the oath of office Friday. Solemn oath

Fowlkes was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen, who will be at Friday's ceremony, to fill the vacancy created by the sudden resignation of Fred Axley.

Axley resigned in June less than a year after winning re-election in 2006 to another eight-year term on the bench. Axley resigned after a worker at a Florida resort accused him of sexually propositioning her. It was the same resort Axley had been barred from earlier because of a similar allegation. Axley denied that his resignation had anything to do with the incident. Axley was first elected in 1982. Fowlkes will serve out the rest of that term in Criminal Court Division 6.

"There are a lot of faces, a lot of violence, a lot of murder. ..." Fowlkes told county commissioners two weeks into his new job, which began with a murder trial. "To me, it is symptomatic of what is going on in our communities because many of the things that are happening in our communities end up in our court system."

He called for better funding of the county program that helps convicts adjust to life once they are released from prison.

"There are a lot of faces, a lot of violence, a lot of murder. ... To me, it is symptomatic of what is going on in our communities because many of the things that are happening in our communities end up in our court system."

- Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes

"It is deeply needed in this community," he said. "There are just dozens and dozens of people who come through the courts who need it."

Agent of change

Fowlkes began his career as an assistant Shelby County public defender. He then worked as an assistant district attorney and an assistant U.S. attorney.

His tenure at the federal building included being the prosecutor in some of the largest drug conspiracy cases tried in the Western District in the 1990s. He was also the prosecutor in the case of Auburn Calloway, accused and convicted in 1994 of attacking a FedEx flight crew while in flight. The case pitted Fowlkes against Calloway's defense team, which was lead by A C Wharton Jr.

Fowlkes left the federal building for the county building shortly after Wharton was elected Shelby County mayor in 2002. Wharton took office with plans that were put on hold as he dealt with an audit showing public money was misspent during the tenure of outgoing County Mayor Jim Rout. Rout's top aide, Tom Jones, eventually pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge. Jones, who did prison time for the theft, said it was part of what he termed a "culture of entitlement" in county government.

Fowlkes, working with Wharton, changed county policies. That included confiscating all county credit cards, implementing stricter policies for those who were allowed to have one and writing a new and more specific code of ethics for the administration.

Fowlkes also oversaw an internal county probe of the local Homeland Security office that included the discovery of listening devices in the ceiling there.

"When I took office, all of you know what we were faced with," Wharton told commissioners earlier this month. "I thought long and hard about who I would ask to come in and hold a position which is, in effect, vice mayor for the county. ... There were any number of individuals in the political arena I could have asked. I wanted someone whose very stature stood for what was right, what was proper, what was ethical. ... (Fowlkes) never, never, never let us down."

Commissioner Deidre Malone joked that Fowlkes had learned to balance the worlds of county government and criminal justice with a request for more funding after only two weeks in robes.

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