Regardless of your point of view, the fact that the future of Juvenile Court will be decided in Chancery Court is a sorry spectacle.
The lawsuit is a stark testament to narrow political agendas winning over the best interests of community harmony. Sadly, there is plenty of blame to go around.
In the end, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter – the Republican member who voted with the Democratic majority in favor of another judge – may be the only voice of reason in this process, urging a systematic evaluation of Juvenile Court operations and serving as a bridge between the two warring sides. Of course, that’s not much consolation to him these days, since as the man in the middle, he’s getting it from both sides.
Winning Is Everything
It should never have come to this. It’s a graphic demonstration of the “winning is everything” attitude that so easily surfaces here. As a result, there’s not the sense that either side is trying to communicate and compromise with the other. Instead, it’s all about winning, even if it means that the citizens lose as a result of the racially-tinged rhetoric, the intimidation by some commissioners of county employees and the general lack of civility in public decision-making.
There was a time when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was held in high regard, because of its overall decorum and willingness to search for the middle ground where compromise – the grease for the political machinery – could take place. But no more. As someone in the county administration said recently, “These days, Memphis City Council is looking good to us.”
Commissioner Henri Brooks’ racial tourette syndrome, combined with Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person’s officious predilection, have resulted in a deterioration of simple manners that has been uninterrupted by anyone on the commission calling for a more collegial environment for reasoned decisions.
Playing It All Wrong
It’s inescapable to watch this display without reaching the conclusion that Judge Person spent too long in Nashville as a state senator. It is in that cloistered world that senators develop an unusual degree of self-importance, an imperial (if not imperious) attitude and an air of infallibility, surrounded as they are by eager aides intent on agreeing with their every utterance and satisfying their every need.
Back here on earth, Judge Person has been displaying his worst senatorial inclinations by his serial stonewalling of the board of commissioners. In the political pressure cooker that is county government, it is never a good decision to refuse to answer a request to appear before that body. To send staff members instead is simply an act of cowardice.
And yet, the juvenile court judge weighed his options and chose the worse one possible – ignore the commissioners. While there are those on the commission who share his point of view, being a no-show hurts him all around, because even these commissioners are left with the thought that “if he’ll stonewall them, he could also stonewall me.”
Trying To Have It Both Ways
Ultimately, the judge’s decision recently to invoke the Judicial Code of Ethics as the reason he could not appear before the board of commissioners was as specious as it was transparent.
He can’t have it both ways. If his position is largely administrative, as we have asserted here, he needs to appear before the board of commissioners. If his position is largely judicial, it gives his opponents traction in their advocacy for another judge.
Sadly, in the midst of all of the games playing, no one is giving Commissioner Carpenter’s call for an independent evaluation of the court much attention. And that’s too bad, because if there should be one area of agreement, it is that court operations have too long operated as a fiefdom, and it is time to modernize operations and identify ways for the court to intervene in the lives of at-risk children in a positive, productive way.
Restraining Common Sense
Meanwhile, if this wasn’t a large enough cast of characters, Chancery Court was ushered into the battle when Judge Person filed and received a temporary restraining order to prevent the appointment of a second Juvenile Court Judge. While we believe that a second judge is the least effective way to address concerns about court backlogs, it’s a sad day when officials within the same government can’t figure out a way to arrive at a mutually agreeable course of action. Instead, taxpayers will be picking up the tab for some of the most highly-paid lawyers in this community.
In the end, the rush to deliver this second judgeship to a politically connected Democrat is unseemly at best. If the eight commissioners who voted for the new judgeship wanted to make a case for it, it’s hard to imagine why they didn’t take a more deliberative approach built on fact-finding and analysis. Instead, their headlong rush for political advantage ultimately will taint the person they would appoint to the judgeship.
All in all, it’s a symptom of how far county government has descended into the political pit of partisanship and racial bickering. And, it seems a good time to admit that the seeds for all of this were planted with passage of partisan elections for county offices.
Partisan Face Lift
At the time, the Republican Party was led by a local plastic surgeon searching for political advantage and a way to cling to county offices as the wave of African-American voters surged. It took a plastic surgeon to put a pretty face on partisan elections, because in time, they have done precisely what so many of us feared – institutionalized the racial divide in Shelby County.
And in this highly-charged atmosphere of partisan politics, every vote – as Commissioner Carpenter learned in joining the Democrats to support a new judge – becomes a test of party purity, diminishing the chances for compromise and weakening the lines of communications.
In a more mature political environment, someone would call for – and get – a 180-day cooling off period in which the study of the court could be undertaken and a more thoughtful approach could be laid to move ahead. But at this point, it doesn’t look like even a Chancery Court order could make that happen.