Jekyll or Hyde?
The Scene has named Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson as "Nashvillian of the Year" (Dec. 22) for upholding the constitutional right of peaceable assembly for Occupy Nashville protesters arrested at Legislative Plaza in October.
I agree this was a valuable and significant judicial action to defend civil liberties for all of us, but from personal experience, I hesitate to verify the legal integrity of Commissioner Nelson.
In your story, you mention the 180-degree disparity between his actions in this case and a very similar 2007 case in which he upheld the arrest of 16 upstanding Nashville citizens conducting an all night vigil outside the Metro Courthouse and City Hall, on behalf of homeless peoples' needs. I was one of those defendants. He arbitrarily set a $2,000 bond for each one of us, in effect sentencing us to a night in jail, without trial. The next morning, Judge John Aaron Holt appropriately dismissed all charges against us, on motion of an attorney, without even bringing us to court.
In the American system, all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The purpose of bail/bond is never to be punitive. Its only purposes are to ensure that defendants return to court for hearings and trial, or to protect the public from defendants who may pose a threat to the safety of other people. Article I, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution says, "That excessive bail shall not be required." The U.S. Constitution, Amendment VIII, uses exactly the same words. Setting prompt bail, or release, is the basic purpose for the existence of Night Court.
The 2007 arrestees included such distinguished and trusted Nashville advocates for homeless people as two former Nashvillians of the Year, Father Charlie Strobel and Clemmie Greenlee, as well as the Rev. Don Beisswenger. There was absolutely no reason to believe that we might not appear for trial, even less that we posed a threat to the safety of others; yet Commissioner Nelson ordered grossly excessive bail, without even inquiring about our background and status in the community. The appropriate action under General Session Court guidelines would have been to release us promptly on our own signatures, without setting any cash bail requirement.
Following our release by Judge Holt, 13 of us filed a formal complaint about the excessive bail to the Judges of General Sessions Court. On May 24, 2007, presiding Judge Gloria Dumas, on behalf of the General Sessions Court Judges, sent Commissioner Nelson a letter of correction reminding him to follow "criteria for pretrial release" and "the directive set by the Judges in regards to Pretrial Release Services".
The idealist in me would like to believe that over the last four years, Commissioner Nelson has carefully reconsidered his judicial conduct and responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all people appearing before him. The realist thinks it possible that the huge disparity in his conduct in these two cases might be due to differences in his political relationships with the Democratic mayor, Bill Purcell, under whom we were arrested, and the current Republican-dominated legislature and the Republican governor, Bill Haslam, who had the Occupiers arrested.
And the award goes to ... High-Bond Tom?
I'm a former Nashvillian, and I was disappointed to see the Scene's selection for "Nashvillian of the Year" (Dec. 22). I can think of a dozen people from Nashville better suited for this award than the night court magistrate know as "High-Bond Tom." The last time I had the misfortune of interacting with Tom, he upheld criminal charges and stuck a hefty bond on 16 housing advocates for demanding a tiny portion of housing for the city's homeless. The group's housing campout on City Hall was squashed by police; then Tom authorized our incarceration for over 12 hours, until a judge threw out our charges the next day.
Tom may have upheld the democratic principles of freedom of association in this one instance, but more importantly, his record of incarcerating homeless people, simply for living outdoors, should be carefully considered.
In my recollection, he has always been eager to uphold police harassment, consistently sentencing homeless people who are arrested by the dozen every night, typically on a charge of criminal trespass, and with a bond of $2,000 (essentially sentencing them to jail before a trial, sometimes for as long as a week). In doing so, "High-Bond Tom" — the nickname he earned as a result of his aforementioned reputation — criminalizes a growing group of Nashvillians simply for having nowhere else to go, and sends a message that Nashville is only for the housed and well-off.
I sincerely applaud Tom's ability to maintain some scruples, defy the higher-ups, and defend the values of liberal democracy. But let's remember, Tom is still playing a key role in criminalizing poverty and incarcerating the lowest-income members of the Nashville community. Putting this in perspective, he is nothing to venerate.
Profile in courage
Congrats on naming Magistrate Nelson Nashvillian of the Year (Dec. 22). Back during the weekend of the arrests, I actually nominated him for the Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for all the same reasons. Nice job.
In our "In Memoriam" issue (Dec. 29), we incorrectly printed the name of Justice A.A. Birch Jr. We regret the error.
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