VOL. 129 | NO. 104 | Thursday, May 29, 2014
Michael Meets Resistance in Juvenile Court Campaign
By Bill Dries
Dan Michael has worked for the last two Juvenile Court judges and hopes to succeed the latest, Curtis Person Jr., with the August election results.
The nonpartisan ballot match between Michael, who is chief magistrate of Juvenile Court, and Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon is, on one level, a referendum on 50 years of leadership of the court – eight by Person, who is not seeking re-election, and more than 40 by Person’s predecessor, the late Kenneth Turner.
But Michael, who was first hired by Turner, told a Frayser group last week that Turner and Person have taken very different approaches to Juvenile Court.
“What I have seen in the last eight years has been incredible change. … No disrespect to the man who hired me. But Judge Turner had been on the bench some 40-plus years and I find the older I get, the more resistant I am to change and he was resistant to change,” Michael told a Frayser Exchange Club luncheon crowd of 14 last week. “When Curtis Person took the bench in 2006, he was all about change.”
But Michael was challenged on the point during the appearance – specifically on the April 2012 U.S. Justice Department report that cited due process and detention problems at the court as well as disproportionately harsher punishment and transfers for trial as adults for African-American children by the court.
Michael said at the outset of his bid to head the court last year that he expected to have to answer the criticisms in the report as part of the campaign. And he said he welcomed the chance to respond.
“We said, ‘Guys, we don’t really understand why you are picking on us. We’ve been making all of these changes. We are pushing forward,’” Michael said of the court’s response to federal officials and a later settlement agreement among the Justice Department, the court and Shelby County government mapping out reforms over several years including the presence of three monitors.
“I want you to hear what we did. We didn’t fight. We didn’t say take us to court. We’re going to lawyer up. We are going to fight you on this,” Michael told the Frayser group. “We said come on. We’re open. We provided them over 60,000 documents. … Our position is what got them to the agreement stage.”
But several citizens in the audience were critical.
“You paint a pretty picture but at the same time, the Justice Department wasn’t coming down here for fun. They came down here because they felt that it was legitimate for them to be concerned,” a man in the audience said. “I don’t feel like you’re being completely truthful.”
“I’m not arguing with you. … I don’t know what more I can do to tell you what the facts are sir or to convince you that my heart is in this change,” Michael replied. “You can either believe me or you don’t. … I can only do what I’m going to do.”
It’s a point on which the election may turn. This is the second race for Juvenile Court judge in eight years in which the incumbent has not sought re-election.
Person faced stiff opposition from former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman Davis in 2006. After winning the election the Democratic majority on the Shelby County Commission sought to appoint other Juvenile Court judges to hear matters as well. Person sued the commission over the move, which he said was politically motivated and would cause “chaos.” He won in state court.
Person ran on what Turner had always touted as the court’s role as a national model for juvenile justice and Coleman-Davis ran as an alternative to that long-held belief among those in Turner’s court apparatus.
The 2014 campaign is more sharply focused on that point with the Justice Department report and settlement intensifying the focus.
A complaint to the Justice Department by County Commissioner Henri Brooks in the wake of the commission’s unsuccessful attempt to give Person company on the bench was what prompted the years of investigation by the Justice Department and the critical report.
Juvenile Court officials insisted at the outset that they had already begun reforms that were noted by the Justice Department in its report. But Person’s reaction to the report even as the settlement was announced was that he didn’t believe there was a racial disparity in the treatment of juveniles.
Michael heard all of the requests by prosecutors in Juvenile Court in 2013 to transfer juveniles for trial as adults.
He compares the 90 transfer requests he granted as painful decisions that involved serious crimes and compared the 90 transfers in 2013 to 194 the court granted in 1993.
“I didn’t get into this to do that,” he said of the decisions. “Transferring is the worst part of my day.”