As television ads go, Lynda Jones’ 30-second spot seems harmless and fluffy enough. It begins with a narrator touting Jones’ high ethical standards as Jones, well groomed in a business suit, red top and pearl necklace, returns some of the bills a clerk erroneously gave her. Oops, too much change. In the next shot, as the narrator repeats the claim about “high ethical standards,” Jones scolds toddlers arguing over a stuffed Cat In The Hat. Nothing wrong with sharing, right? In the next few shots, Jones is shown paging through legal texts and holding court around a conference table.
If Jones’ commercial ended there, it would be another political ad easy to ignore. But what comes next gives the ad edge and has made Jones the subject of courthouse whispers. A goateed man asks her if she can fix his traffic tickets. “Sure,” Jones replies, looking wryly into the camera. In the next shot, Jones stands over the man as he sits at a conference table, much the way a teacher stands over a pupil. “Make your check payable to the Traffic Violations Bureau,” she tells the man, who nods in resignation.
To some of the judges on the General Sessions bench, which Jones hopes to join once election season is over, the commercial is a stab at their integrity. None of them will say this for attribution, of course, citing an unwillingness to enter the political fray. “It’s hypocritical, for one thing,” one of them says. “She’s misleading people on ethics, yet she’s campaigning on an ethics platform.”
A General Sessions attorney, who also asked not to be identified, agrees, saying, “I have friends who sit on the bench who think her TV campaign is a slap in the face.”
At her headquarters, a 12 South office space on the second story of a cheese shop, Jones denies taking a cheap shot at the General Sessions bench, saying she knows of only one judge she has offended. “I’m sorry if one judge is upset because he thinks the ad is aimed at him,” she says. “I don’t know why. He’s very egocentric. He probably thinks the Cheerio ads are aimed at him too.”
She says she produced the ads for two reasons. First, she was ticked off by the response voters gave her when she told them she was a General Sessions candidate. Some asked whether she believed in the death penalty and abortion, even though General Sessions judges don’t rule on those issues. Others asked her whether she’d fix their traffic tickets. “That question makes me cringe,” she says, “even if it’s a friend joking.”
Jones also wanted her commercial to be funny. “People tend to remember humor,” she says. So she threw in the bit about fixing tickets and gave it an ironic twist. She says it wasn’t supposed to criticize any ongoing pattern of abuse. “I have no personal knowledge of judges fixing tickets.”
The unfortunate consequence for Jones has been the willingness of courtroom observers to condemn her candidacy—much more so than the other woman in the four-person race, former Assistant District Attorney Angie Blackshear Dalton. Her critics say Jones has practiced bankruptcy law for the last six years, and is unqualified for General Sessions work, where most cases involve misdemeanors and traffic offenses. Civil cases are mostly landlord-tenant disputes or cases involving debtors. Other dockets focus on mental health and environmental issues. “To be honest, I’d never heard of her before she announced her candidacy,” says Bill Faimon, the retiring judge Jones hopes to replace.
The General Sessions docket is rapid fire, with hundreds of defendants summoned to court at one time, their cases decided within minutes of reaching the bench. Eleven Davidson County General Sessions judges heard 669,000 cases last year. This cattle call approach to jurisprudence means judges must remain current on the law or ruin hundreds of cases in the process. New judges unfamiliar with criminal law have consumed courtroom hours ruling erroneously on search and seizure and other issues. “We can’t afford to have even one weak judge in General Sessions,” a criminal attorney says.
Jones, however, has practiced law for 15 years. Only the last six were spent at the federal level, in bankruptcy court. Before then, Jones worked a number of cases that took her in and out of General Sessions court. In addition, she has experience sitting as a special judge for four General Sessions judges—Gloria Dumas, John Aaron Holt, William Higgins and Michael Mondelli. As a special judge, an unpaid position similar to a substitute teacher subbing for a full-time instructor, Jones ruled on hundreds of cases identical to the ones she’d be hearing as a General Sessions judge.
“I think the idea that Lynda Jones somehow does not have experience in General Sessions is completely wrong,” says Michael Stewart of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, a supporter who met Jones 10 years ago when he was running for the statehouse. “She’s a bankruptcy attorney, but her experience extends to other courts as well. She’s been sitting in General Sessions making the very same decisions she’d be making if she were a sitting judge.”
Jones chalks up the toxic chatter to a courthouse contingency that has anointed an opponent, attorney Blake Freeman, as the successor to Judge Faimon’s office. (The other candidate in the race is 54-year-old Steve Holzapfel, a former swimming pool contractor who completed law school in 1998 and was appointed a night court judge two years ago. As a judicial commissioner, he determines whether there’s probable cause to detain arrestees and sets bail.) Jones says Freeman’s supporters don’t like the idea that she’s a formidable candidate, one capable of raising $105,000, according to the March 31 campaign finance disclosure.
Part of that money, $30,000, is a loan Jones gave herself, and another part, $40,000, represents contributions of $100 or less, which Jones is not required to itemize. Forty thousand dollars in unitemized contributions—almost unheard of in local elections—was enough to spark the interest of the Davidson County Election Commission. “It blew a lot of people’s minds,” says Joan Nixon, the commission’s chief election deputy. “I thought it was a mathematical error.”
Jones says she was able to raise so much money from small contributors because she took a page from prominent Democratic fund-raiser Cathy Thomas by arranging events based on their likely contribution level. She hosted a women’s caucus at $45 per person, several events in the African American community and a margarita night at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis. “I had a lot of food donations,” Jones says. “It’s more about keeping profit margins up. If you spend $1,200 to raise $2,000, what good have you done?”
Jones says she’s become the target because she’s run a solid race. “We’ve run a top-notch campaign, and the good ol’ boys are asking, ‘Where did she come from?’ ”
Her supporters are willing to strike back too. They sent the Scene a flyer from her chief opponent, Blake Freeman, with at least three typos circled on it. A pathetically weak prop, to be sure, but the insinuation is that Freeman somehow doesn’t have the mental acumen to be a judge.
Jones, on the other hand, has to watch for overconfidence. Her aggressive nature has even some of her supporters wondering if she’ll catch black robe fever if she’s elected. “I’m not shy, bashful or easily intimidated,” Jones says. “I think everybody will be pleasantly surprised with my work once I’m elected."