If there is a Democratic way of running government, the creation of an unneeded second Juvenile Court judge by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is about to become its poster child.

It’s too bad, because with less than three whole months under its belt as the new majority on the board of commissioners, the Democrats with this vote set a tone that will cause damage far beyond this single issue.

That’s because this second Juvenile Court judge is one of the lamest ideas to come before the county legislators, much less approved by it. It’s short on justification and long on political payback.

Worst of all, it has the potential of proving that Republicans have been right all these years – Democrats really don’t have a problem raiding the public purse for their own advantage.

Abject Ignorance

Most amazing of all is the fact that the commissioners’ vote appears rooted in an abject ignorance of what the Juvenile Court judge does in the first place. More to the point, the job has long been more administration than judicial, and if the commissioners’ objective is to reduce the number of child support cases pending in Juvenile Court, this was about the worst possible way to go about it.

That’s because the Juvenile Court Judge doesn’t really hear cases. He manages a bureaucracy that among other things includes Juvenile Court referees, lawyers who are appointed to hear the cases in its courts, and a detention facility.

Incredulously, the commissioners voted to create this judgeship without even finding how much it will cost. The salary of the judge – $140,000 – is only the tip of the iceberg, because once the costs of court clerks and support staff are added, the amount could easily spiral to $500,000 a year.

Put The Money Where It Will Do The Most Good

If the Shelby County commissioners have this much money on an unneeded judge, why not simply spend a fraction of that amount to pay the salaries of more referees to hear cases?

Commissioners base their decision on a 1967 private act of the Tennessee Legislature that empowered them (seven years before the county mayor’s office was even created) to appoint a second judge in the event a need was ever proven.

But here’s the thing: the bill was passed in the wake of the creation of the joint city-county court (now only county again), and in the intervening years, former Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner surpassed any conventional thinking of the time to create a system that was viewed as a national model across the U.S. and the subject of a nationally televised documentary.

Stuck In A Time Warp

The system that he developed is light years from the simple notions that inspired the 1967 law – the notion that the judge would only hear cases rather than manage a sprawling operation of which courts is only one part. In other words, the current Juvenile Court bears no resemblance to what was thought to be the case 39 years ago.

Adding a second judge has about as much relevance to today’s operations of Juvenile Court as adding a second sheriff to address jail overcrowding.

While we were admittedly no supporters of Curtis Person’s election to the judgeship, this decision by the commissioners is highly dangerous, because it exposes lame political tendencies that can set public perceptions about the way that the new Democratic majority will rule county government.

After years of being one vote away from a majority, the new seven-member majority gives all the indications of a teenage-like overexcitement at the prospects of doing whatever they like.

Partisanship Over Promise

While it is tempting to say that the Republican push for partisan county elections years ago has finally come home to roost, it’s more to the point to be concerned that Democrats’ years of promising that they would be fairer and more egalitarian have quickly fallen prey to the arrogance of the majority vote.

In brushing aside Republican Commissioner David Lillard’s request for a two-week deferral, the Democrats also sent the message that the environment in county government would be more adversarial and decidedly less civil. Such deferrals have been routine over the years – and no one has profited more from them than Democrats – and it’s a shame that their new adulation with their own power trumps the courtesies and civility that are the grease that makes the wheels of the commission move.

And if the idea wasn’t illogical enough on the surface, Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s suggestion that the administrative duties should bounce back and forth between Person and a second judge sounds like a prescription for chaos and politics in a place that already has too much of them. From someone from whom so much was expected, this vote by Commissioner Mulroy for party purity was particularly demoralizing.

She Deserves Better

It’s widely believed in the county building that the judgeship is being created for Veronica Coleman, former U.S. Attorney and unsuccessful candidate for the post now held by Person, and while we are great admirers of hers, this is the wrong way for her considerable skills to be put to work. She’s an honorable person, and she should take the opportunity now to disassociate herself from the games that are afoot.

To make the political motivations even more transparent, the commissioners seemed intent on waiting to advance this idea so that it couldn’t be put on the ballot where citizens could pick their own judge, rather than allowing seven Democrats – with Republican Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s inexplicable backing – to pick who they want in the job.

All in all, it’s a sad tale of raw, albeit a bit amateurish, political gamesmanship, and hopefully, it’s an aberration and not a sign of things to come for the board of commissioners.