The Chancery Court race between sitting Republican judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle and Democratic challenger Carol McCoy is not just historic. It’s also dividing the Democratic Party. While the average voter doesn’t even know the race is onmost don’t even know what the Chancery Court issome active Volvo Democrats are in a state of wholesale confusion.
Only one other time in this century has a Republican been elected to a local judgeship. That was when Ben Cantrell came to the bench in 1974. And never before in Davidson County have two women run against each other in a general election contest.
In this case, Lyle, 38, who was selected last year as one of three finalists to replace retiring Chancellor C. Allen High and was then appointed by Gov. Don Sundquist, has earned high marks for her first year’s performance. Her colleagues in the legal community say she is capable, kind, and thorough, an assessment backed up by a February Nashville Bar Association poll, in which 83 percent of 901 respondents said they would “recommend” or “highly recommend” Lyle for election to the post.
On the other side is McCoy, 49, a partner in the firm Davis, Cantrell, Humphreys & McCoy, who has built a legal career and dedicated much of her time to community organizations and groups interested in women’s issues.
The choice has some Democrats, particularly women’s advocates, at a loss as to whom they should support. While Lyle, a University of Tennessee law school graduate, is pulling support from both parties and counting on that factor to win the race, McCoy is relying strictly on Democratic Party support.
“Politics is the only way that a person gets to be a judge,” says McCoy, a Vanderbilt University Law School graduate. Her voice fairly drips with near-contempt. “My experience in 23 years as a lawyer is that it’s very political. If it’s an appointment, it’s even more political.”
McCoywho ironically lives in the Legend Hall housing development on Hobbs Road, the site of Lyle’s family’s farm before it was sold off in the 1970shas received mixed results from the Nashville Bar Association. In the February poll, 36.3 percent of respondents said they would recommend her, while 32.2 percent said they would not recommend her. The other third said they had no opinion of McCoy’s qualifications.
McCoy supporters contend that a sitting judge is simply better known to more lawyers. That, they say, is the reason for the poll results. Moreover, they say, about a third of the Nashville Bar Association’s 2,100 members live in heavily Republican Williamson County.
And they point to a 1995 Nashville Bar poll assessing the chances of applicants to the Judicial Selection Commission. In that poll, Lyle and McCoy earned almost equal ratings. Among respondents, 36.4 percent said they would highly recommend or recommend Lyle, while 43.2 percent said the same of McCoy. In the same poll, 9 percent did not recommend Lyle, while 23.2 percent did not recommend McCoy. Almost 55 percent said they had no opinion of Lyle, and almost 34 percent said they had no opinion of McCoy.
Lawyers are careful not disparage their colleagues publicly, but many say privately that Lyle is a better judge than McCoy would be.
A matter of choice
Lyle counters McCoy’s view that the race is strictly political. Instead, Lyle says that politics is irrelevant in court and that that’s why she wants supporters on both sides of the aisle.
“To me the race is very simple,” Lyle says. “Here’s somebody who’s held a position for a year. People are satisfied with her performance. The sense is we don’t want to tinker with court. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
A look at supporters on both sides of this contest says a lot about the state of politics in Davidson County. Lyle has the help of attorney and longtime Democrat Harlan Dodson; she also has the support of his wife, Democrat Margaret Behm. Behm serves on the state Judicial Selection Commission, which last year chose Lyle, Frank Clement, and Clifton Knowles as the three finalists from among whom Sundquist could choose to fill High’s seat.
Dodson has been involved in many Davidson County Democratic campaigns, including those of Juvenile Court Judge Andy Shookhoff and Sheriff Gayle Ray, who came out of nowhere to upset the incumbent Hank Hillin in 1994. If anybody is pulling the strings to the goo-goo political class in the city, it is Dodson.
Mandy Haynes Young, daughter of powerful Democrats state Sen. Joe Haynes and Circuit Court Judge Barbara Haynes, is a Lyle supporter, as is liberal attorney Abby Rubenfeld.
McCoy has ready access to prominent Democrat and lawyer Larry Woods, and, of course, has tapped into the elected Democratic establishment for support. Her biggest base of support seems to be the old-line courthouse crowd. Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence, Juvenile Court Clerk Kenny Norman, Property Assessor Jo Ann North, and even former Sheriff Fate Thomas have attended fundraisers for McCoy.
In the Chancery Court race, the essential political dynamic involves a smart, West Nashville-based candidate with support of both Republicans and Democrats running against a more partisan, courthouse-based candidate with stronger support in East and North Nashville. If history is any guide, and given the pattern of recent elections, the courthouse candidate would be the likely loser. But in this case that’s not certain at all, simply because of Lyle’s Republican affiliation.
Dodson acknowledges that any Democratic candidate would have the advantage in any race in Davidson County. But he says that voters are becoming less interested in party labels. He points to Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory and the subsequent 1994 elections, which sent many Democrats in Congress home and replaced them with Republicans.
And yet, “A Democratic candidate would still be expected to win for a local office in Davidson County,” Dodson says.
By his estimation, about 40 percent of Davidson County voters are Democratic “leaners,” meaning that they always or usually vote for Democrats. Another 26 percent of Davidson County voters are Republican leaners.
“But in a race like this, you have to remember a high percentage of the people have not heard of either one of them. You’re also going to see a very, very low turnout,” Dodson predicts.
About 43,000 people voted in Ray’s sheriff’s race in 1994. Dodson guesses the Aug. 1 race will bring 50,000 to 55,000 voters to the poll.
Settling for seconds
This race is Lyle’s first run for elected office. It is the second for McCoy, who opposed then-Davidson County Public Defender Walter Kurtz for the Fifth Circuit Judge seat in 1982. In fact, some Democrats have pointed out that natives haven’t forgotten that race and that it may be a negative for McCoy.
“I never thought about it. I never thought that that race would be a factor,” McCoy says.
McCoy spent more than $45,000 on the Circuit Court race, as did Kurtz. But she lost the Democratic primary with 41 percent of the vote. The race was so long ago that neither candidate really believes it will be a major factor. Still, what could negatively affect McCoy are the business dealings of her second husband, Richard Chambers, who left The Bank of Nashville several years ago under less than bright circumstances.
More recently, Chambers was named in a federal court lawsuit filed on June 19 on behalf of employees of his check-cashing company, Music City Money Inc. The lawsuit claims Chambers and a colleague denied the three plaintiffs overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Observers interested in the race have pointed out that once the election is over there may be another Chancery Court seat to fill. That’s because Chancellor Robert Brandt has told his colleagues that he has been approved for senior status by the state Supreme Court.
Senior status effectively amounts to a retirement with the opportunity for the judge to fill in and hear cases part-time. Brandt is expected to take the status sometime after September.
That raises the question of whether the loser in the Lyle-McCoy contest will reapply to the state Judicial Selection Commission for an appointment to fill Brandt’s seat. Lyle says absolutely not.
“If I can’t win this race, then why do I think I can win that one?” she asks. “I have no interest in that position.”
McCoy is not as unequivocal on that question but says she doubts she would reapply. She again refers to what she sees as the political nature of the appointment process.
“I doubt very seriously that Don Sundquist would appoint me,” she says.
McCoy goes on to say that the way in which Lyle was appointed was highly political. “The people on the committee are supposed to be representative of the people across the state.”
When reminded that Margaret Behm, who chaired the commission at the time of Lyle’s appointment, is a Democrat, McCoy responds, “She was a Democrat.”
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