The arrest of the Democratic nominee for Shelby County district attorney general Monday, March 24, is the best indication yet of the tumult within the local Democratic Party as it attempts to win countywide offices four years after losing every race to Republicans.
The arrest of former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown on contempt of court charges in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court shows how hard Democratic contenders intend to push in making the current state of the local criminal justice system an issue.
With national news coverage of the arrest, Brown’s insistence that the court only had the authority to fine him $10 per violation was obscured in what looks to be a road map for Democratic challengers of the system as well as the elected officials running it.
The confrontation also obscured for now the continuing skirmish within the local party about the meaning of party loyalty and what sanctions there should be for those Democrats who stray from the party slate for any reason.
Brown was in court to represent a client on child support arrangements and argued that her case should have been dismissed rather than continued to an April hearing. Among the points he argued was that Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. didn’t sign a court document but instead that a rubber stamp was used.
“I will file a petition for habeus corpus and close this place down like I did before if you make her come back here one more time,” Brown then responded.
At that point, the confrontation hit a number of points Brown has made repeatedly both before and since he declared as a candidate for district attorney general. He contended Juvenile Court Magistrate Harold Horne’s authority means nothing without every judge in a state civil court approving Horne holding the magistrate’s position.
Brown has told several audiences that he’s used the point in the past to unseat Juvenile Court magistrates.
He’s also told audiences that at one point he made the late Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner cry during a confrontation over court procedures in the 1970s.
While Brown is challenging Republican incumbent District Attorney General Amy Weirich in the August elections, his candidacy so far has included just as much time criticizing Juvenile Court as it has the prosecutor’s office.
As a Criminal Court judge in the 1990s, Brown and Turner tangled, with Turner complaining to the state Court of the Judiciary and Brown later saying he meant no disrespect but not backing down from his criticism.
“I will file a petition for habeus corpus and close this place down ... if you make her come back.”
–Judge Joe Brown
Brown has also emerged as the leader of the Democratic slate for the August county general election as it stands now. Brown is running unopposed in the May primary for district attorney general.
Most of the offices the Democrats are making a priority are posts in the local criminal justice system.
With his celebrity appeal from his run on the nation’s second-most popular syndicated judge’s program, Brown has attracted a lot of attention as Democrats wait for the May primaries to decide who their nominee for Shelby County mayor will be.
Brown’s campaign posted word of the contempt arrest Monday afternoon on the campaign Facebook page comparing his jailing to that in the 1960s of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Supporters of Weirich also noted the incident in Twitter and Facebook posts separate from her campaign Facebook page without comparisons to King.
Meanwhile, county commissioner and former local Democratic Party leader Sidney Chism apologized in a letter to current party chairman Bryan Carson for saying the local party has become “dysfunctional.”
Earlier this month Chism resigned from his position on the state Democratic Party’s executive committee.
“I am under attack from a fragment of the membership who I feel are following the lead of a man with personal motives and as I have said, that is unfortunate,” Chism wrote.
Chism was censured by the party this month for criticizing Democratic nominee for sheriff Bennie Cobb and saying he supports Republican incumbent Sheriff Bill Oldham.
After Chism described the party as dysfunctional, party executive committee member Del Gill, who is also running in the Democratic primary for Circuit Court clerk, sought to have Chism declared a “non bona fide” Democrat for what he termed “political treason.”
Following Chism’s written apology, Carson cancelled a meeting of the party’s executive committee where Gill intended to push the action.
Gill also argued candidates in the May Democratic primaries should not show up at the Sunday, March 23, political forum by the Memphis branch NAACP because it would give greater attention to Republican contenders who may attend.
The forum for county mayor and Shelby County Commission candidates drew all three Democratic primary contenders as well as Republican incumbent Mayor Mark Luttrell and more than a dozen commission candidates, most of them Democrats.