There’s nothing glamorous about General Sessions Court, the criminal justice system’s vortex for petty thieves, drunk drivers, habitual small-time offenders and, unfortunately, many mentally ill defendants.
If you want to be reminded of your blessings, spend a morning or two watching people with real problems.
But that’s precisely what makes the Feb. 10 race for the court’s Division II General Sessions judgeship meaningful. It is one of 11 seats in the city’s lowest courts where everything from traffic violations to public intoxication is considered, but it’s the only one that includes Metro’s mental health docket. The cases of nonviolent offenders who appear to have some form of mental illnessand this apparently accounts for a sizeable numberare heard here, so that those offenders can get the social services they need to stop the revolving door of arrests.
It’s one of only five such courts in the country, and it was begun by former General Sessions Judge Mark Fishburn, whom Gov. Phil Bredesen recently appointed to a new Criminal Court seat.
“A lot of these folks have been in and out and in and out for years,” says attorney Dan Eisenstein, a former mental health care professional who’s running for the job. “You’re dealing with people who have no support system.” Eisenstein, who’s had a general law practice in Nashville for 26 years, is running to unseat Judge Andrei Lee, whom the Metro Council recently appointed to fill Fishburn’s seat.
Though members of the Nashville Bar Association (NBA) overwhelmingly preferred Eisenstein for the job, as evidenced by a poll the NBA made public, the council appointed Lee after she launched a quick and well-organized lobbying effort in the wake of Fishburn’s appointment. It didn’t hurt that a number of council leaders interested in seeing racial diversity on the bench wanted to appoint the city’s first black female judge. (Lee ran unsuccessfully for a General Sessions Court seat in 1998.)
“When the judgeship opened up, I started politicking to get it and I’m still politicking,” says Lee, who was a senior referee at Juvenile Court at the time of her appointment and who has practiced both in the district attorney’s office and in private practice. The University of Detroit law school graduate says that she was fully expecting the Nashville Bar Association polls to show that her peers preferred Eisenstein, both because he serves on NBA’s board of directors and because his practice has brought him in contact with more lawyers. “Unless the attorneys practice juvenile law, they don’t know me,” she says.
The latest Bar poll showed that 30 percent of the more than 1,000 attorneys voting recommended or highly recommended Lee, compared with 61 percent for Eisenstein.
Lee says that, while she didn’t specifically seek Fishburn’s General Sessions seat because of the mental health docket, she didn’t feel “deterred” by it because she saw many juveniles and/or their parents in Juvenile Court whose problems stemmed from mental health issues.
By contrast, Eisenstein, who went to law school at Memphis State University, says the mental health docket is the only reason he’s running for the job, and that he wouldn’t seek election to any other division of General Sessions Court. He began his career out of college developing re-education programs for violent offenders who were emotionally disturbed or mentally ill. Eventually, he became the program director and started helping these defendants navigate the legal system, traveling across the state to appear in court. “I determined that if I were going to stay in this field, I probably ought to get a law degree. I didn’t start out to be a lawyer. I became a lawyer through mental health.... How many times does this merger come about in your life?”
Eisenstein and Lee face two other Democratic rivals, including Christian Hofstetter, a third-generation lawyer who has a general practice on White Bridge Road. Before going to the Nashville School of Law, Hofstetter worked in the General Sessions Court Clerk’s office and was the clerk for the emergency committal docket. “Then when I got to be a lawyer, I represented patients on the docket,” he says.
Having that experience, Hofstetter says, makes the idea of overseeing the mental health docket, where judges and officers of the court have the chance to be “super social worker/probation officers,” even more intriguing as a place to make a difference. “The criminal justice system is a horrible place for people with mental health problems,” he says.
If the NBA poll is any indication, Hofstetter is less known than Lee and Eisenstein. Sixteen percent of lawyers voting recommended or highly recommended him and 70 percent had no opinion. He says that he’s a small family lawyer who does much of his work out of the county, which could account for the results.
Finally, attorney Richard Hedgepath is also running for the job, though he didn’t return a call from the Scene. The winner of the Democratic primary faces TV-spot lawyer Neil Flit in August.
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