Opinion » Editorial

A Second Judge

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It was bound to happen. With the election in August of eight new commissioners to the 13-member Shelby County Commission, the reconstituted body would want to see things anew and do things differently. This was made doubly inevitable with the transfer of titular power from a Republican majority to a Democratic one, though, just as before, the differential is a matter of one vote only. In fact, the County Commission is as close to being nonpartisan as a body elected by the party system can be.

This latter point is relevant to the hue and cry over the commission's vote at its last meeting to take advantage of a 1967 state law in adding a second judge to the structure of Juvenile Court. Opponents of the decision charge that party politics is behind the move as well as favoritism involving a potential candidate for the proposed new judgeship, former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman. And, say the critics, the add-on will invite exorbitant expense and administrative chaos.

Though there is a modicum of logic to all these complaints, we are open-minded toward the idea of a dual judgeship. In this year's multi-candidate race for Juvenile Court judge there were a few recurrent themes that received consensus approval from the candidates: that the court's caseload has in recent years increased astronomically, that more preventive measures to crime are called for, and that too many cases are being passed on to the conventional (or "adult") courts for adjudication. And there's the elephant in the room -- the fact that, just as in the judicial system at large, there is an overwhelming preponderance of African Americans in the cases that come before Juvenile Court.

For all these reasons, the commission's action makes sense, especially insofar as it presupposes a judge of the caliber of Coleman, whose ad hoc involvement with juvenile-offender and mentoring issues is a matter of long standing. And we are bolstered in that conviction by the fact that Mike Carpenter, a newly elected Republican commissioner from the predominantly white suburbs, is an outspoken advocate of the change along with the commission's Democrats. Arguably, in fact, the movement for a second judgeship is more a creature of the new commission members per se than it is of a particular political party.

Creating the new judgeship should not be regarded as a slap at former state senator Curtis Person, an accomplished and experienced Juvenile Court administrator who was elected judge with a plurality in the August election. But there's the rub: Person fell short of an absolute majority not through any personal failings but because of diversity in the electorate and the fact that the talent level in the rest of the field was unusually high. The current Juvenile Court system -- consisting of an elected judge who administers the court's affairs and a network of appointed referees who actually adjudicate its cases -- grew out of the now vanished anomaly that longtime judge Kenneth Turner, who did not seek reelection this year, had no law degree and could not sit in judgment himself.

A second judge would allow the court to move beyond that makeshift arrangement and to confront the social change and calendar overloads that are now the actual case at hand.

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