Since Nashville and Davidson County established Metro Government in 1963, not one black person has been elected to an at-large seat in Metro Council. In fact, were it not for the fact that some Council districts have predominately black populations, there might not be any blacks in Davidson County’s legislative body.
Only in the local judiciary have blacks held countywide office, but even there the numbers have been few. It only takes one hand to count the minority jurists who have been elected to the bench in recent yearsa fact that several candidates in the upcoming May 5 county Democratic primary have pointed out in the course of their campaigns.
“It is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed,” says Carlton Lewis, a well-respected black attorney running for a newly created Davidson County General Sessions judgeship. “I’ve never wanted to make this a black-white race issue, but there is an issue of fairness there.”
Lewis is not one to claim victim status because of his race. The younger brother of Tennessean columnist Dwight Lewis, who often writes about race relations, Carlton Lewis says he frequently disagrees with the importance that race is given in his brother’s columns.
Carlton Lewis supports the election of more black judges to the local judiciary, but he also says, “If a person is qualified, regardless of race, that ought to be the primary concern.”
The Nashville Bar Association membership recently gave Lewis the highest recommendation of all the candidates vying for the General Sessions seat. While Lewis may not have strong name recognition in the county at large, his peers strongly favor him. Nearly 89 percent of the lawyers responding to a candidate poll recommended or highly recommended Lewis. By comparision, 63 percent supported John Aaron Holt, a Metro Council member and Lewis’ biggest threat in the four-candidate field for the judgeship.
The only other black judicial candidate in any of this season’s contested races is Andrei Ellen Lee, a Juvenile Court referee who has taken a leave of absence from her job to run for still another newly created General Sessions judgeship. Like Lewis, Lee faces opponents with better name recognition than hers. The favored candidate in that race is former Metro Council member Randy Kennedy, who received an 85 percent positive response from the Nashville Bar, compared to Lee’s rating of approximately 58 percent.
Her position about blacks on the bench is similar to Lewis’. “It shouldn’t matter whether you’re black or white but whether you’re qualified,” says Lee. “A lot of people do think, though, it’s time we had qualified African Americans on the bench.”
Paving the way
Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr. was the firstand is thus far the onlyblack judge ever appointed or elected to Davidson County’s General Sessions courts. First appointed to the job in 1969, he was elected to a full term the next year, becoming the first black person to win a countywide election in Metro.
Birch departed General Sessions Court 20 years ago for Davidson County Criminal Court. He then moved up through higher courts until 1993, when Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Davidson County has had only a few other black judges, and they have all served outside General Sessions courts. The only black judge currently serving in Metro is Davidson County Chancellor Irvin Kilcrease, who was first appointed by Gov. Lamar Alexander in 1980. Kilcrease has since won repeated re-elections. In the most recent several elections, he has been unchallenged.
Sterling Gray was a well-liked local figure when he served as Davidson County Criminal Court judge from 1982 to 1987, but his service on the bench had a sad ending. Gray won election to the open seat in 1982, beating out two other experienced Nashville attorneys. But, under indictment for soliciting bribes, Gray resigned in late 1987 during an investigation into wrongdoing in his court. Two months later, in January 1988, Gray shot and killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself.
The only other black Davidson County judge in modern years was Circuit Court Judge Robert Lillard, who was appointed to the bench in 1978 by Gov. Ray Blanton. Lillard was 70 years old and didn’t seek election to a full term later that year.
There are a couple of theories as to why more blacks haven’t been elected to public officeincluding judgeshipsin Metro. The most obvious reason, attorneys and others point out, is that blacks simply tend not to run. It’s a fact that the pool of black attorneys in Nashville is small, at least in comparison to the number of white lawyers. When any of those black attorneys do run for judgeships, they’re often underdogs.
Judicial candidate Carlton Lewis says that, for most black attorneys, many of whom have little name recognition, the prospect of running a low-budget, countywide race is just too daunting. “The racial makeup of the county [roughly 75 percent white, 25 percent non-white] is one thing,” Lewis says, adding that “it’s also very, very expensive to run a countywide campaign.” For his own part, Lewis says, for the past several months he has virtually had to shut down his practice at the law firm Petway, Blackshear & Cain while running his campaign. He says he even felt guilty one recent weekend when he set aside a couple of hours for a nap.
At least one other city in Tennessee has struggled with the lack of black representation on the bench. In Chattanooga in 1990, 10 black plaintiffs filed suit against the state of Tennessee, claiming that the at-large method of electing judges in Hamilton County violated the voting rights of minorities and made it almost impossible for blacks to be elected to the bench there.
In 1993 the case was tried before U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull in Greeneville, Tenn. Hull ruled for the plaintiffs, ordering the state to come up with an appropriate remedy for the problem. The state appealed, and the case has been doing legal somersaults ever since.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Hull, asking him to document his reasoning for the order. Hull later proposed a solution to the problem“cumulative voting” for judicial races. That proposal would give voters the option of casting one vote in each judicial race or, if they wish, of casting all of their votes in one particular race.
Hull sent the idea back to the Sixth Circuit, where the appellate judges are still considering the case. For now, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered that judicial elections be held as usual, at least until the court can decide whether Hamilton County’s at-large method of electing judges violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
“We look at this like George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to stop black persons from attending college,” plaintiff Lorenzo Ervin told the Chattanooga Times in January, after the Sixth Circuit had ordered status quo elections for 1998. “We look at this as the same type of obstructionthe governor of the state standing in the doorway to prevent blacks from electing their representatives and judges.”
State attorney general Knox Walkup has rejected the notion that judicial election laws are unfair to minority voters, saying the small number of minorities qualified to run for those offices is the real problem. In 1994, for example, there were only 30 black attorneys practicing in Hamilton County.
There is a possibility that 1998 could be a watershed election year for blacks in Davidson County. Both black judicial candidates, Lewis and Lee, are considered to be qualified for the General Sessions jobs. And they have strong support, even in the face of formidable opponents.
Meanwhile, Jamie Isabel, a black candidate in the Register of Deeds race, is considered a threat in that free-for-all. Six Democratsincluding former Mayor Bill Boner, who has traditionally had strong support from black votersare running for that job in the May 5 primary. Isabel, who runs a local marketing firm, could make severe inroads into Boner’s black constituency. If Isabel were to win the primary and go on to win the general election, he would be the first black to hold a countywide office, other than a judgeship, in Metro’s 35-year history.
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