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VOL. 129 | NO. 62 | Monday, March 31, 2014

Brown’s Contempt Hearing Reflects Political Skirmish

By Bill Dries

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Joe Brown’s bid to unseat District Attorney General Amy Weirich in the 2014 elections probably wasn’t supposed to begin this way – in a courtroom dispute with Juvenile Court that has nothing to do with Weirich.


Brown, a former Criminal Court judge, will be in Criminal Court Friday, April 4, for a hearing before Judge James Beasley on the criminal contempt citation and jail time Brown got last week in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court from Magistrate Harold Horne.

All indications are that Brown will press his argument that Horne could not have him jailed for contempt and that Juvenile Court magistrates aren’t real judges.

Juvenile Court officials are expected to press their argument that Brown should serve all five days Horne imposed for several instances of contempt, and that Brown’s argument with Horne was a “willful, deliberate, orchestrated event designed to show his disrespect for the judicial system.”

Nowhere in those proceedings will Weirich or her office be involved. Neither will City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon, who is running against Juvenile Court Chief Magistrate Dan Michael in the August race for Juvenile Court judge.

But the broader campaign by local Democrats to change the local criminal justice system and the broader defense by local Republicans of parts of that system, as well as ongoing reform efforts in other parts, will be affected – just not by Beasley’s decision.

The two directions incorporate a lot of familiar political ground and issues that have never surfaced to this extent in campaigns for elected office.

Democrats on the Shelby County Commission, with support from Republican Commissioner Mike Carpenter, went after Juvenile Court’s system of magistrate judges shortly after Curtis Person was elected Juvenile Court judge in 2006.

They proposed and approved a plan that would allow the commission to appoint, and voters to later elect, other Juvenile Court judges to serve with Person – replacing a system that was necessary during Kenneth Turner’s long tenure as Juvenile Court judge because Turner was not an attorney.

When Turner was first elected in the 1960s, state law permitted a non-attorney to serve as Juvenile Court judge. When that changed, he was grandfathered in, but with a system of attorneys serving as magistrate judges to make the formal legal decisions.

Person sued the commission over the change, claiming more than one Juvenile Court judge would lead to “chaos” and that the commission’s effort was a continuation of the nonpartisan election in which Republican leaders backed Person and Democrats backed Veronica Coleman-Davis.

Person won on issues of whether the commission could create new judicial positions, putting an end to what would have been a major structural change to the court.

But a complaint to the U.S. Justice Department by Commissioner Henri Brooks in the aftermath of that launched an extensive, multiyear federal investigation of the court that has yielded reforms far broader in scope than replacing the magistrates with elected judges.

Brooks, who worked at Juvenile Court for 11 years, is a vocal critic of the Justice Department’s settlement with the court and county government. She is running against Kenneth Moody in the May Democratic primary for Juvenile Court clerk, in the party’s attempt to unseat Republican incumbent Joy Touliatos in the August county general election.

No one involved in the campaigns individually or collectively is publicly denying the need for change in the system. It is the pace of the change and the tactics to bring about change.

“He’s a polarizing figure. … His judgments and ruling were unorthodox,” Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson said of Brown earlier this month before the contempt citation. “He’s a guy of integrity. He says what he thinks. … His celebrity will bring a lot of excitement.”

Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Justin Joy is emphasizing proven leadership over unorthodox leadership.

“Amy Weirich is not a celebrity. She’s a prosecutor,” he said. “I think a lot of the problems we have in this county are long-term. … They’ve been in place for many years. I think that progress has been made on a number of fronts and I think will continue to be made if the current leaders remain in place.”

That’s the argument Joy makes for Michael in the race for Juvenile Court judge.

“He’s been there in the Juvenile Court system for many years, and he has the knowledge,” Joy said. “He has the experience to address those challenges.”

Carson says Sugarmon is not as polarizing or unorthodox as Brown, but is also an experienced judge who could effect greater change more quickly in Juvenile Court.

“For one thing, he’s an African-American,” Carson said. “He can directly relate to some of those children that are going through the process and they may listen to him.”

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