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VOL. 129 | NO. 37 | Monday, February 24, 2014

Criminal Justice Issues Likely to Dominate Races

By Bill Dries

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Expect to hear a lot between now and August about how the local criminal justice system does or does not work.

Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court is one part of the local criminal justice system that will likely be an issue in the coming county elections. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

With Thursday’s filing deadline for candidates in the May 6 county primaries, two races for offices that are part of the system advanced to the August ballot.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich has no opposition in the May Republican primary and neither did Democratic challenger and former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown in his. Both automatically advance to the August general election signaling an early start to a campaign that is expected to be a referendum on the role of the prosecutor’s office in the local criminal justice system.

The general election race for Shelby County sheriff was also set at the deadline between Republican incumbent Bill Oldham and Democratic challenger Bennie L. Cobb, a retired sheriff’s deputy. Neither had opposition in their respective May primaries.

A third general election matchup that involves the local criminal justice system is still taking shape with the May primaries. Incumbent Republican Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos will face one of two Democrats -- County Commissioner Henri Brooks or former city public service division director Kenneth Moody on the August county general election ballot. Independent candidate Morrie E. Noel advances to the August ballot at the filing deadline.

Combine that with the likely matchup in the nonpartisan race in August for Juvenile Court judge between Juvenile Court chief magistrate Dan Michael and Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon and how criminal justice works in Shelby County looks to be a dominant theme.

The Juvenile Court race, which should be set at the April 3 filing deadline for judicial races on the August ballot, is different from the other three in several ways.

Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. is not seeking re-election, so there won’t be an incumbent. And although it is without party headings on the ballot, it will be the most partisan of the judicial races with the local Democratic Party heavily backing Sugarmon and the local Republican Party heavily backing Michael.

It’s a continuation of the partisan competition from the 2006 judge’s race between Person and former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis to succeed long-time Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner.

After Person won, Democrats on the Shelby County Commission immediately pushed to expand the court and create new judge’s positions as well as appoint the new judges. Person sued the commission in state court and won.

Brooks, meanwhile, filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department about Juvenile Court. The complaint prompted an extensive investigation and a May 2012 report highly critical of due process procedures in the court. The report, which led to a settlement agreement among the court, the Justice Department and county government, also cited disproportionately harsher punishment, detention rates and transfers of juveniles for trial as adults among African-American children who came into contact with the court.

Touliatos has said the clerk’s office is a separate operation that works with the court but isn’t involved in court decisions. Brooks has argued that the clerk’s office through record-keeping plays a role in how parents are able to make sense of the juvenile justice system when their children come to the court.

The different views of the clerk’s office have been a regular feature of elections for such positions for years between Republican and Democratic contenders. The different views also tend to be separated by who is the incumbent and who is the challenger.

Brown, who had the second-highest rated syndicated “judge” program on television in the country before contract talks with CBS syndication bosses hit an impasse last year, has endorsed Brooks as well as Sugarmon in their challenges.

He’s also served notice that he intends to challenge Weirich’s administration of the District Attorney General’s office, which he terms “country club justice” that is a continuation of decades of policies for prosecuting crimes.

Weirich was a career prosecutor in the office when she was appointed to the post in 2011 by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to succeed District Attorney General Bill Gibbons when Gibbons was tapped by Haslam for his cabinet. Weirich won a 2012 special election to finish out the remainder of Gibbons’ eight-year term of office.

She has said the role of her office is to do more than try to lock up as many of those charged with a crime as possible. Under her leadership, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors formed the Multi-Agency Gang Unit in 2013 and served the first anti-gang civil court order on a neighborhood in South Memphis.

Brown has been especially critical of Weirich’s defense of veteran prosecutor Tom Henderson who was censured in December by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility for failing to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence in a murder trial. Weirich later recused her office from the retrial of Michael Rimmer ordered by Criminal Court Judge James Beasley. Beasley was also critical of Henderson’s conduct but ordered Rimmer’s retrial because he ruled Rimmer had ineffective defense counsel.

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