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VOL. 124 | NO. 16 | Monday, January 26, 2009

Commission to Vote On New Judge

By Bill Dries

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IN THE HUNT: There are 15 candidates for today’s appointment as General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Division 10 including (top row, left to right) Latonya Burrow, chief administrative officer in the General Sessions Court clerk’s office; attorney Cary Harris; (bottom row, left to right) attorney Coleman Garrett; and judicial commissioner Rhonda Harris. -- PHOTOS BY BILL DRIES

The candidates will outnumber commissioners today when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners votes on a new General Sessions Criminal Court judge.

There are 15 candidates for the Division 10 judgeship that became vacant with the Jan. 2 death of veteran jurist Anthony Johnson. There are 13 county commissioners.

Whoever gets the appointment will serve until a special election in 2010 for the remaining four years of Johnson’s eight-year term of office.

Such appointments, whether made by the commission or by the governor, are usually the path to a career in the judiciary. The appointments allow those who receive them to get some of the political bounce of incumbency because they can run in the next election as a judge.

“The ultimate goal of any lawyer worth his salt is to be a judge,” attorney Edward Kizer told commissioners last week during a committee screening session with each candidate.

Also vying for the appointment is Latonya Burrow, who became chief administrative officer to General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson in September.

Burrow has run for judge several times since 1998, narrowly losing to incumbent Criminal Court Judge Fred Axley in 2006. If she doesn’t get the appointment today, Burrow vowed she would try again.

“I’m a hard worker,” she said. “I have the experience. … I’m the most experienced.”

Some of those vying for the appointment are expected to apply to the Tennessee Judicial Selection Commission, which is to make recommendations to Gov. Phil Bredesen next month for the vacancy in Circuit Court created by the death, also on Jan. 2, of Judge Rita Stotts.

Criminal defense attorney Coleman Garrett made a passionate appeal last week for the General Sessions appointment. Garrett has been an attorney for more than 30 years, leaving a well-paying job with the National Labor Relations Board to open a struggling Memphis law practice.

“I remember when this system wasn’t broken,” he told commissioners. “I am committed to this profession. I am concerned about the integrity of the legal profession. I love this profession. I don’t like the way it’s been tarnished. I don’t like the way it’s generally perceived by the public.”

Garrett estimated about 70 percent of his practice is criminal defense. That has included such high-profile cases as the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting trial of former state Sen. Roscoe Dixon and a brief stint as court-appointed counsel in federal court for Dale Mardis, accused and convicted in state criminal court in the murder of code enforcement inspector Mickey Wright.

“It’s not about the crime. It’s about the integrity of the system,” Garrett said. “It’s about the Constitution. I don’t know where else you can reach out and touch the Constitution.”

Another contender is Carolyn Watkins, who is administrator of county government’s Equal Opportunity Compliance (EOC) office. Like most of the applicants, she has experience working in the local courts on a daily basis. She was an assistant public defender for approximately eight years. For five of those years, Watkins worked on the defenders’ office capital murder unit – the team that provides defense counsel for defendants in death penalty cases.

Two judicial commissioners, Sherrie Miller Johnson and Rhonda Harris, also have applied. Harris was among the first commissioners appointed in Shelby County in 1998 to conduct bond hearings and review arrest and other warrants as a way to prioritize who remains in jail immediately after an arrest and who should be free pending trial.

Johnson, an attorney since 1989, has been a judicial commissioner since 2002 and her practice has been primarily in the area of family law.

The other applicants for Division 1 are:

  • Mischelle Alexander Best, a former General Sessions Criminal Court judge who served in Division 11 for five years.
  • Bryan Davis, an assistant district attorney assigned to Criminal Court.
  • Shelia Davis, an attorney since 2004 whose practice has been primarily in Juvenile Court.
  • Timothy Flowers, an attorney in private practice.
  • Rick McKenna, an assistant district attorney for 26 years who was assigned to Johnson’s courtroom.
  • Janet Shipman, an assistant county attorney assigned to the city-county Health Department who has been an attorney for 28 years.
  • Terrance Tatum, an attorney for 10 years, who is an assistant public defender.
  • Lee Wilson, partner in the Wilson & Wright law firm who has practiced law in Memphis for 25 years starting as an assistant district attorney.
  • Cary Woods, an attorney for 32 years and a former Juvenile Court referee as well as a special judge in numerous Shelby County courts.

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