City Judge Candidates: (from left) Judge Teresa Jones, Municipal Court, Division 1; Candidate LaTrena Davis-Ingram, Division 1; Magistrate David Pool, candidate in Division 3; Judge Jayne Chandler, Division 3
As political forums go, those involving clerks and judges are usually the tamest. In the case of the judicial races, in particular, there are canons of conduct that prohibit overt promises or explicitly political sentiments. So the forum scheduled for Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Poplar was expected to be a relatively ho-hum affair. It wasn’t; in fact, it turned into a guerrilla combat of sorts.
The first segment involved three of the several candidates for City Court Clerk — current deputy clerk Delicia DeGraffreeed, clerk employee Carl A. irons II, and De Givens. Nothing much out of the ordinary occurred besides the candidates’ discussion of their credentials and a few aspects of the office. About a third of the way through the planned event, the clerk part of the forum ended, and the four candidates for the two contested city judge positions took their seats behind the table. Unexpectedly, that’s where the mayhem ensued.
It started off with Jayne Chandler, reigning judge in Municipal Court, Division 3, who sat on the far right, next to her opponent, Criminal Court Magistrate David Pool. The two other candidates, vying for the judgeship of Municipal Court, Division 1, were incumbent Teresa Jones and challenger LaTrena Davis-Ingram.
Though the two paired antagonists were in each case seated next to each other, moderator Sharalyn Payton chose to pose all her questions in an order that leapfrogged that neat division, a quirk that often led her to overlook Pool in the sequence until prompted and, more importantly, interposed the responses of one or both of the Division 1 candidates when the Division 2 race began to include charges and counter-charges between Chandler and Pool.
As if to balance this state of affairs, Davis-Ingram and Jones, it turned out, had their own grudges to exchange, and, in the last half of the hour-long judicial part of the forum, the sparks flew in all directions.
The friction started when Payton posed a question about possible “bias” or other matters that might mar the principle of “fair and impartial” in court proceedings. Chandler was the first respondent, and she began with an obvious effort to settle a score. In a previous statement, Pool had recounted the various endorsements his candidacy had received (inter alia, from members of the Bar Association, from the AFL-CIO, and from the Shelby County Sheriffs’ Association, and from the Memphis Police Association) and suggested they underscored the need for a change in Division 3.
Chandler began: “I’m going to point to the person running against me, who has implied that I have not been faIr and impartial.” She maintained that Pool had first wanted to run in Division 1 and had requested her support for such a race. She then said,“To imply that the clerks asked him to run because I don’t treat people fairly, the police support him because I don’t treat people fairly,” why would he ask such a person for support in another division? “I don’t mind Mr. Pool running against me. It’s a democracy. It’s open. But be honest. An impediment to justice is dishonesty.”
Chandler then directed several questions to Irons, who was now sitting in the audience and was, she said, the resident clerk in her courtroom. She asked him a series of leading questions designed to draw Yes answers from him regarding such matters as her punctuality, her compassion, and her fairness in the courtroom. Dutifully, Irons answered each question in the affirmative.
“I’m a person of integrity. I have not been compromised. I will not be compromised,” Chandler declared. She said she would not be included on any sample ballot prepared under private auspices (an apparent reference to one such ballot circulated by Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen, County Commissioner Van Turner, and former local Democratic chairman David Cocke), “I will not be demeaned or lied on.”
She then turned to another matter: “People have been saying I put LaTrena Davis in the race against Ms Jones. … Y’all report me good. I didn’t ask her to run against Ms Jones. She did it on her own. She has the right to run, just like he has the right to run,” indicating Pool. “But all these people who are supposed to be judges and honest and [to have] integrity walk around being dishonest. That’s why there’s no trust.”
She might have gone on longer, but League of Women Voters president Peg Watkins, who was acting as timekeeper, called time on her. There was a bit of a shocked pause in the room, as after an unexpected explosion.
Payton next called on, not Pool, but Davis-Ingram, who began to work her way through a more conventional kind of response, talking about factors in the lives of impoverished Memphians that might inhibit their trust in the judicial system.
She was followed by Judge Jones, who decided to pick up on one of Chandler’s themes. “There’s been a lot of talk about honesty, and that’s been one of the cornerstones of my entire life,” Jones said. “Is it honest when you say in an affidavit that you live in some place that you don’t live? You decide. You’re the voters.” This was a none-too-oblique reference to Davis-Ingram’s having maintained a residence in Collierville right up to her declaration for office in Memphis. Jones continued: “Is it honest to say that you’re on the side of the people in the community when, for 17 years you’ve voted in Collierville and lived in Collierville? You decide!...I stand before you with no public censures from the Board of Professional Responsibility, no violations for over 30 years...Can my opponent say the same? That’s honesty!”
Jones then re-surfaced the rumors, alluded to by Chandler, about the reasons for Davis-Ingram’s being in the race but dropped the matter without pronouncing on it one way or another. She sequed to a discussion of formal impediments to her office, including a lack of resources. “I am an honest person. I’ve lived in the inner city for the last 17 years. I’ve voted in city elections.”
With not one but two verbal wars underway now, Payton seemed about to ignore Pool, but audience reaction reminded her that he deserved a turn. And thus, several minutes after being directly attacked, he had a chance to defend himself. He denied ever saying that Chandler was unfair nor that he had ever sought her support. He then called it “unjust and unfair” to single out a clerk and put him on the spot, as Chandler had done with Irons. That, he said, was “an extreme conflict of interest.” He said he had always respected Judge Chandler and, win or lose, would continue to.
The fireworks apparently over, or at least suspended, Payton then solicited questions at large from the audience. Several came — about the nature of fines and fees, the consistency of them from division to division, and a judge’s limited discretion concerning how to implement them; about possible attempts to block organized court-watch activists from specific courtrooms; and about affording police officers proper regard in the courtroom.
The earlier flare-ups had not lasted long, but with a week and a half yet to go before voting is over, their consequences could be several.