In Mike Jameson’s lone TV spot boasting his credentials for judge, the ex-Metro councilman’s two sons flip through posters that highlight big-name supporters: former Mayor Bill Purcell, Councilwoman Megan Barry and Councilman Jerry Maynard are reeled off first.
The list of local politicos keeps going: council members Ronnie Steine, Charlie Tygard and Tim Garrett, school board chair Gracie Porter, state Reps. Mike Stewart and Mike Turner, state Sen. Joe Hayes, and so on.
Indeed, when a General Sessions judgeship opened following the death of Judge Leon Ruben, a few of these folks and other council friends pulled through to catapult him to the bench. After winning a special appointment by collecting 24 council votes, Jameson was sworn in as judge in November.
Now, with the Democratic primary for General Sessions, Division 8, set for Tuesday, March 6, Jameson must prove he can claim the same judgeship through the support of Nashville voters — not just those in his home turf of Lockeland Springs and Edgefield, but countywide. He’s hoping Nashvillians recall his eight years of council service fondly, and see his temperament and approach as positives in the courtroom.
“It’s important to have a judge who maintains a sense of humility and fairness,” Jameson, a longtime favorite among local progressives, told The City Paper. “I think I’ve received good marks for those qualities during my service on the council, so I think you can anticipate that I would continue the same tradition as a judge. I think I’ve done that in my tenure to date as judge.”
Jameson's two opponents, Rachel Bell and Jack Byrd, however, seem to be taking subtle swipes at Jameson’s arrival to the bench, casting him as a political insider as they make their separate cases for the judgeship.
Whichever of the three emerges victorious Tuesday will be heavy favorites to knock off independent candidate Michael Rowan in August.
Bell, 34, was among a handful of attorneys who applied for the special judicial appointment in the fall but lost out to Jameson. “I’m not a part of the establishment,” she said of receiving zero council votes back then. She added: “I didn’t know the council would appoint based upon relationships versus what the community and their constituents would need as a whole for Davidson County.”
“I can understand that,” Bell said, continuing her thoughts on Jameson’s appointment via connections. “That’s human nature.”
Byrd, a 53-year-old attorney who didn’t run for the council appointment, boasts the following on his campaign website: “Let Experience, NOT Politics, Work for You.” The message seems like a slight jab at Jameson’s political past, though Byrd insists that isn’t his intention.
“It is what it is,” Byrd said of his slogan. “It’s not about being elected somewhere to me. It’s about being a judge in General Sessions. That’s where I’ve worked. That’s where I’ve always worked. That’s where I’m at almost everyday. I’m the only candidate in the race that actually works in those dockets.”
Byrd is referring to the General Sessions criminal court dockets. According to legal records, neither Bell nor Jameson has made recent appearances in criminal court, while Byrd’s appearances exceed hundreds of pages and total thousands. Byrd has built his candidacy on this fact.
“The judge’s bench is not the place for a learning curve,” Byrd said.
Regarding civil cases heard in Davidson County General Sessions Court, Jameson has made 46, his last appearance in 1999; Byrd has made 21; and Bell has made more than 90. In some instances, Bell was representing herself after suing clients who failed to deliver her legal fees.
Jameson believes those figures should be put into perspective. His opponents have been licensed lawyers since 2005. He has 22 years of legal experience, he points out. He began as a public defender in 1990 working in General Sessions. He then moved onto other courts.
“That’s a fairly selective window that completely ignores my experience as a public defender in General Sessions Court in the 1990s, and erroneously assumes that experience in higher courts is worthless,” Jameson said of attempts to criticize him for a lack of General Sessions criminal case practice.
The three candidates are vying for one of 11 judicial seats in General Sessions, a high-volume court that hears cases ranging from civil, misdemeanor and felony charges to environmental, traffic and Metro ordinance violations. Some lawyers liken General Sessions to a “cattle call.” Hundreds of cases go before the judge daily.
Bell, a partner at Bell & Kinslow for seven years, is both the only African-American and the only female candidate of the bunch. In an interview with The City Paper, she pointed out that Davidson County’s General Sessions is decidedly white and male. Only one of the court’s 11 judges is black, and only three are women.
“I’ll be able to bring diversity to the court,” said Bell, who likely needs a high black turnout to win Tuesday. “Both of my counterparts are male. They’re Caucasian, so they wouldn’t bring that diversity to the bench.”
“Our community is diverse,” she said. “We’ve got individuals from all different walks of life that live here. To only have one African-American judge, I believe it’s very important for us to start opening up the doors and having other experiences on the bench as well.”
In her legal work, Bell listed experience in General Sessions, Chancery and federal courts in a candidates’ questionnaire. She said she’s known best for her representing people dealing with home foreclosures. Bell’s law office is the only one in Bordeaux, she said, thus opening herself up to a variety of different cases.
“I’m committed to the community,” Bell said.
Byrd, who opened a private firm in Nashville in 2005, said his firm works primarily in General Sessions, with “90 to 95 percent” of his caseload focused on criminal law. Byrd said he has sat in as a special judge “a couple of hundred times” collectively in 10 of the General Sessions Courts, including the late Ruben’s courtroom.
“I’m the only candidate in the race that’s one of the 10 members that are approved to be substitute judges in General Sessions,” Byrd said.
“General Sessions courts are 80 to 90 percent criminal [cases],” Byrd said. “If you want to be a General Sessions judge, you ought to work in General Sessions.”
Byrd boasts military and law enforcement experience. Some courthouse observers, however, have noted Byrd’s curious voting history for someone running in a Democratic primary. Byrd voted in state Republican primaries in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010. During that time he voted in two county Democratic primaries.
“I vote for who I believe is the best person for the job,” Byrd said in response. “My personal opinion is judicial races should be nonpartisan.”
By every metric, this contest is Jameson’s race to lose. Buoyed by his well-known backers, Jameson’s $88,000 campaign war chest — which includes a $33,000 personal loan — is greater than the combination of his opponents’ fundraising totals. Jameson is the only candidate who has won elections in the past, and he has the highest name recognition.
On top of those factors, a Nashville Bar Association poll of its members gave the highest marks to Jameson. Forty-nine percent of 1,062 respondents said they “highly recommended” Jameson for the judgeship, compared to 7 percent for Bell and Byrd. Of the three, Jameson received the fewest number of “do not recommend” responses — just 6 percent. Twenty percent of respondents did not recommend Bell, and 15 percent did not recommend Byrd.
If Jameson were to win the election, many speculate he could run for a different judgeship down the road. In 2008, he sought a circuit court judge position, but then-Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Joe P. Binkley Jr. instead. Jameson rejected those ambitions.
“This is the fulfillment of a dream since I’ve been 8 years old,” Jameson said. “I don’t have any plans at all to go anywhere else ever.”