Opinion » Editorial

Renewing Juvenile Court

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The state Supreme Court, by declining Monday to hear an appeal of an appeals court decision blocking the appointment of a second Juvenile Court judge for Shelby County, apparently concludes an argument that began almost as soon as former state senator Curtis Person was elected judge in 2006.

Within weeks of Person's swearing-in, a movement was afoot among Democrats on a newly re-elected Shelby County Commission to avail themselves of a provision of a 1967 act of the Tennessee legislature approving the consolidation of what had been two juvenile courts — one for Memphis and another for Shelby County. That provision, looking ahead into what the legislature foresaw as a growing workload, enabled the commission to appoint a second judgeship if need be at some point.

The provision wasn't acted on for the next 40 years, and it was doubtless no coincidence that the new commission's action in invoking it coincided with A) the aftermath of the defeat by Person of former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman, who had partisans on the commission; and B) the fact that the new commission, for the first time since partisan elections began determining the makeup of the body in the '90s, consisted of a Democratic majority.

The bottom line was that the Democrats had the numbers to out-vote the Republicans and wasted no time in doing so, even winning over a single Republican vote. Otherwise, the issue seemed to the commission's outraged Republicans to be a simple power grab.

There was a logic to the action beyond the merely political, though, as subsequent research by a specially appointed commission task force and a series of public hearings would indicate. Indeed, Juvenile Court had for decades been constituted on a truly bizarre basis. It stemmed from the absence of a law degree by the longtime elected judge, Kenneth Turner, who established a framework whereby the courtroom work of Juvenile Court was essentially carried out by appointed lawyers designated as "referees." Though the system had its defenders — and continues to have them, long after the retirement of the now deceased Turner — anything so idiosyncratic was bound to outlive its time.

But there was no denying the political aspect of that January 2007 vote, which many observers, and not only Republicans, considered an unjustified slap at Person, who had been an administrator under Turner. In any case, divisions were established by that early showdown on the newly re-formed body that have endured to the present moment.

At the time, Person sued to overturn the commission's action, lost in Chancery Court, appealed, and won last fall with the Tennessee Appeals Court. It was that ruling which the state Supreme Court, by deigning this week not to act, left as the ultimate and defining judgment.

Now that it's over, the commission should proceed apace and in an unbiased manner with such overdue reforms as can bring Juvenile Court fully into the 21st century. Just as alchemists' search for a means to create gold was the proximate origin of the science of chemistry, so did the partisan showdown on the Juvenile Court issue equip the County Commission with an abundance of reformist ideas and procedures to consider. It should do so soon.

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