Opinion » Editorial

Courting Collegiality

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Having previously editorialized in favor of a second Juvenile Court judgeship, we have no objection to the outcome of Monday's 8-5 vote by the Shelby County Commission -- a party-line vote except for Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter's persuasive presence on the prevailing side -- to move in that direction.

But we are not unsympathetic to the complaint of several GOP members that party politics played too large a role in the proceedings -- especially in the way the judgeship issue was rushed up by the commission's new Democratic majority in the immediate wake of last year's election. The hastiness of their action was clearly a reaction to the victory of current Judge Curtis Person, a longtime Republican eminence in the legislature. (It is everybody's expectation that the appointed second judge, if it comes to it, will be former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman, whose background is Democratic and who ran second to Person in a multi-candidate race.)

It is not quite accurate for Commissioner Deidre Malone, a Democrat and the prime mover behind the winning resolution, to respond to Republican complaints, as she did Monday, by protesting that she herself had served four years on the short end of a 7-6 partisan split the other way. She had no closer ally on that prior body than former Commissioner Bruce Thompson, a Republican whose ideology was conspicuously right-of-center. Indeed, the shabby cloth-covered red chair she now uniquely occupies is a vestige of Malone's having followed Thompson's lead in resisting, on cost-conscious grounds, the new leather chairs accepted without complaint by other commissioners.

That openness to collaboration on Malone's part extended to substantive matters, not just cosmetic ones. Just as she and Thompson waged a common struggle against pell-mell development, she and former Commissioner John Willingham, a maverick Republican, often found themselves on the same side of taxation issues. Race and party and the other famous political divides rarely seemed to be primary motivations -- either for Malone or for the rest of her colleagues back then.

They are now -- as typified by Commissioner Sidney Chism's passionate and no doubt sincere declaration that, for him as an African American, the court change voted on Monday was in the interests of "people who look like me, walk like me, and talk like me." And by the insistence of Commissioner Henri Brooks on hauling newly installed Judge Person before the commission like some juvenile offender himself, as well as her demand, prior to any definitive demonstration of wrongdoing, that the court be the subject of a Justice Department investigation.

Much more like it was the commission's 12-1 vote Monday to go ahead with a previously proposed $50,000 study of court procedures. Maybe, as GOP commissioner Joyce Avery, the lone holdout, protested, it was "cart before the horse," but, as everyone knows, a court challenge to the court change is in order, and it surely won't hurt to do some serious and collegial thinking about the future structure of Juvenile Court, whether or not the horse goes back into the stable in the meantime.

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