Politics » Politics Feature

Judgment Overruled

Shelby County Democrats make changes in a screening committee's judicial endorsements.



At a lengthy and boisterous meeting at the IBEW Union Hall last Thursday night, members of the Shelby County Democratic Committee overturned several recommendations for judicial endorsements submitted by a party screening committee. But that wasn't the half of it: The party's innate fault line was laid bare for all to see, in a meeting that was basically a nonstop ruckus, with catcalls, interruptions, and enough tortuous repetition of already covered procedural points to be considered cruel and unusual at Guantanamo.

Late in the proceedings there was even an ejection -- sort of -- as Pat Primrose, a member of the reformist Mid-South Democrats in Action, hooted at one too many circumstances and, at Chairman Matt Kuhn's request, was escorted to the back of the IBEW hall by party sergeant-at-arms John Bratcher. (Committee member Del Gill, as obstreperous as ever, barely escaped a similar fate five or six times and almost got it when he shouted, "You shut up!" at fellow committee member Desi Franklin, chair of the judicial committee. Franklin, no shrinking violet herself, had said, apropos one of Gill's attempts to lecture Kuhn on procedure, "You're not the chairman!")

But there was method to the madness. The party representatives (and remember, this is the same body, elected a year ago, that contains each of the three major Democratic factions -- a "Ford" group, a "Chism" group, and a "reform" group -- in almost equal measure) made decisions according to a sort of understandable calculus.

Things we found out:

It helped for a candidate to be black, but it helped even more to be a known Democrat. And the deciding factor, all else being equal, was, believe it or not, judicial qualifications.

The best example of that occurred with the executive committee's overwhelming endorsement of incumbent Paula Skahan, previously endorsed by the judicial committee, over Tonya Saafir for Criminal Court, Division 1. Skahan is white and Saafir is black. Beyond that, however, Saafir has generous support from social conservatives and has been formally endorsed by several groups on the Republican right. Skahan is being targeted (mainly for an alternate lifestyle) by the same groups. Score a big one for Skahan, whose judicial record has already won her a passel of other endorsements and no worse than a "no endorsement" decision by the Shelby County Republican Party itself.

There were other such examples. Incumbent Judge Mark Ward, who had been endorsed by the judicial committee, got the nod, if barely, over opponent Alicia Howard in Criminal Court, Division 9 when party secretary Norma Lester and Chairman Kuhn, during a recount, cast deciding votes in his favor. Ward, who had the highest ratings of any judge in a recent survey of lawyers, had previously appeared to have won the committee's endorsement by a single vote and had sat fatalistically in the rear of the room, declaring to an onlooker, "She's going to get it this time." That might have been so had the issue been determined solely by skin color, but there was enough crossover among the majority-black voters to get Ward, the paleface in this pairing, through. His larger problem might have been that he was previously endorsed by the Shelby County Republicans.

Yet another instance of that principle -- party over race as a deciding factor -- occurred in the voting for Criminal Court, Division 7. Lee Coffee, an African American, was the judicial committee's recommendee; his major opposition came from Janet Lansky Shipman, who is white. As members of the judicial committee had explained, both candidates were almost equally worthy, enough so that a finding of "No Endorsement" might be the right way to go. That's the way it turned out, in fact, by a bare majority of 23 for not endorsing. Astonishingly, Shipman got 18 votes against none for Coffee, who had received a judicial-committee recommendation -- a fact suggesting that her support is far harder than his. But, once again, Coffee's total in the group at large probably suffered from the fact of his endorsement by the Shelby County Republicans.

Kenny Armstrong, the current clerk and master in Chancery Court and the judicial committee's endorsee, came within a hair of losing the executive committee's endorsement but was saved when Lester cast a deciding vote in his favor. Armstrong, an African American, like rival Karen Tyler, seems to have gotten something of a backlash because of his prior endorsement by the Republican Party.

Race may, in fact, have played a major part in deciding several other endorsement contests, including some conspicuous reversals. In Chancery Court, Division 2, well-liked and well-respected incumbent Arnold Goldin, a judicial-committee endorsee who had won several prior endorsements, including that of the majority-black National Bar Association, went down in a floor vote to newcomer Carlee McCullough, an engaging if less credentialed challenger.

Other judicial-committee endorsees who suffered a similar fate were Jim Lammey in Criminal Court, Division 5, beaten by Dewun Settle; Karen Massey in Criminal Division 11 of General Sessions, supplanted by incumbent Judge Michelle Alexander-Best; and incumbent Judge Louis Montesi in Criminal Division 13 of General Sessions, outvoted by challenger Terrence Tatum.

In two other races, a "no endorsement" recommendation by the judicial committee was overturned by the executive committee, a majority of whom preferred to endorse Curtis Johnson (over incumbent Jimmy Russell) in Circuit Court, Division 2, and LaTonya Burrow (over incumbent Fred Axley) in Criminal Court, Division 6.

In a double reversal that is bound to re-ignite controversy, incumbent Judge Ann Pugh first lost her judicial-committee endorsement Thursday night in an apparent "no endorsement" vote of the membership for Criminal Division 7 of General Sessions. Under the circumstances, this seemed to be a save for Pugh, whose opponent, Tyrone J. Paylor, had come within a vote of supplanting her as the executive committee's choice.

But Pugh lost even that perch in limbo when Chairman Kuhn acquiesced this week to a complaint from Gill that, since an absolute majority had not voted for "no endorsement," the leader of the two candidates should become the endorsee. Under this ex post facto interpretation, Paylor became the party endorsee.

Other contests were decided Thursday night in favor of the judicial committee's endorsees: incumbents Jerry Stokes in Circuit Court, Division 6; D'Army Bailey in Circuit Court, Division 8; Carolyn Blackett in Criminal Court, Division 4; John Donald in Civil Division 3 of General Sessions; Betty Thomas Moore in Civil Division 5 of General Sessions; Gwen Rooks in Criminal Division 12 of General Sessions; and Donn Southern in Probate Court 2.

Regina Morrison Newman continued her impressive sweep of endorsements in Civil Division 4 of General Sessions.

Last but by no means least, given the intense competitiveness of this multi-candidate race, former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman won an endorsement for Juvenile Court judge with relative ease over adherents of a "no endorsement" vote. The chief loser in that outcome was city judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, who needed the boost to bolster her claim to be the leading candidate among African-American voters. Coleman, who has good crossover potential, can now lay plausible claim to that distinction herself. Left out of the running was another city judge, Jayne Chandler. Thursday night's vote gave a better chance of going one-on-one against Republican endorsee Curtis Person, who remains the favorite in the general election race.

Senate 2006: How They Stand

As three competing Republican U.S. Senate candidates head down the home stretch for the August 3rd primary (see Cover Story, page 18), here's how they and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. stacked up earlier this year, poll-wise and money-wise:

A June Zogby poll showed Republican Bob Corker beating Ford, 46 percent to 42 percent, while GOP candidate Van Hilleary led Ford by a 43 percent to 41 percent margin. Ford and the third Republican candidate, Ed Bryant, were tied at 42 percent. The poll's favorability/unfavorability percentage ratios showed Hilleary at 54/18, Corker at 52/17, Ford at 51/38, and Bryant at 44/12. (Last month, Corker released his own poll showing him with 42 percent in the GOP primary race, compared to 23 percent for Hilleary and 17 percent for Bryant; ironically, Bryant took the results seriously enough to issue a call for Hilleary to step aside in his favor.)

As of March, Corker and Ford were the clear leaders in fund-raising, with Corker showing $4.2 million in campaign cash, Bryant with about $1.1 million, and Hilleary with $1.2 million. At that point, Ford had $2.3 million in his campaign coffers. In addition, Corker's personal assets were estimated to be in the range of $60 million to $230 million, far and above any of his rivals.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment