City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon says a speech given last year by Shelby County Juvenile Court Chief Magistrate Dan Michael clearly illustrates that Michael does not merit election as Juvenile Court Judge.
Sugarmon believes he’s the person for the job. The speech that Sugarmon references was reflected, in part, on the Midtown Republican Club’s website.
“I’m a strong critic of the federal program of the deinstitutionalizing of minority confinement,” Michael is quoted as saying. “They said we were violating equal protection, but what about the 98% of Americans who don’t engage in criminal activity?”
Sugarmon says he was shocked by Michael’s reported comments.
“It shows not only a lack of understanding of the issues that the kids that come through juvenile court face, it shows a lack of sensitivity to African Americans, but most importantly, it shows a predisposition to put African-American kids into detention,” said Sugarmon.
According to the Judicial Canon of Ethics, judges must show that they are fair, that they are independent and that they don’t have any predispositions, Sugarmon said. “If I were a minority person or any person of color I would file a motion to recuse because he has shown that he has a bias toward minorities. You can’t explain those statements away, they speak for themselves.”
Sugarmon said he’s not calling Michael a racist.
“The Department of Justice report from June of this year reflects that the conditions for unfair treatment (at Juvenile Court) still exist. I don’t think he understands the damage of what he has said does to undermine his independence and objectivity when it comes to handling minority cases. I think it shows a predisposition towards minorities. That does not mean he is racist, but what it does mean is that his decisions are not race neutral.”
In a telephone interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Michael said he did not recall the speech, adding that he tries to be very careful in his language when referring to the children under the court’s care.
On the Midtown Republican’s website site Michael states, “We can’t lock our way out of the problem (of juveniles committing crimes). I can’t fix everything. We’re a court, not a social service. I just try to take it one child at a time.”
Sugarmon also pointed to this comment on the Midtown Republican’s website: “Newly minted lawyers just don’t have the experience to be on the bench and make these decisions.” The site quotes Michael as saying, “It’s just too important.”
That directly reflects upon Michael’s own experience, said Sugarmon.
“If you examine Mr. Michael’s own literature you will see that he has never tried any case of any kind in any court and I think that is very significant. … He has been performing a legal office appointed by a judge and he is making decisions that are affecting these kids and families lives as a judge without learning the trade. The only on-the-job training he has had is in a system that has been determined by the Department of Justice to be broken.”
A set of billboards depicting Sugarmon with his father, Judge Russell Sugarmon, remind voters of the son’s direct link to the city’s civil rights history. Sugarmon said that as a youth he was inspired to a legal career by learning from his father, and at the fabled law firm of Benjamin L. Hooks and A.W. Willis Sr., which he says became the first integrated law firm in the southeast.
“I am very proud of the contributions of my father, but I’ve always tried to create my own. I’ve handled more than 180 felony jury trials. My success rate was well over 80 percent. As a matter of fact there was an 8-year period when I did not lose a jury trial. I think that proves not only my knowledge of the law but as a litigator. I represented the African-American city council persons in the lawsuit that led to the setting aside of the runoff law. We were successful in negotiating a settlement.”
On his campaign website, Michael touts being appointed to the bench in 1997 by Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner and 17 years experience as a referee under Turner and current Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person.
Michael feels his experience in the system directly qualifies him to earn voter support.
“When I came out of law school I clerked for a small law firm. I did not stand before the judge and argue the cases but I did help to research and prepare the cases. My first six months or eight months in my role at Juvenile Court was spent running the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and I served as a guardian and a volunteer coordinating attorney for cases we had in Chancery Court. When I later became the executive director of CASA I was also chief counsel and I tried over 1,000 parental rights cases. So anyone that says my I don’t have the experience is wrong.”
Amplifying, he continued: “Those were bench trials, not jury trials. So I’ve tried very serious parental rights cases in front of the bench. … From there I was appointed chief counsel of the court, which was more of a corporate counsel to the judge. There is all types of legal experience and I have that experience.”
Michael said there are some internal things about Juvenile Court that need to change.
“Right now our probation officers help manage the docket. I want to move that docket back to the clerk’s office to achieve efficiency with docketing, cut down on the number of files that are misplaced or lost when they’re not checked out properly, and to create a system for local attorneys so they can file their lawsuits in the clerk’s office.”
Michael said “one of the reasons there is such a problem in Shelby County is that we have relied on the state to fund us. Now if a child needs intensive services where a foster home is not appropriate, they’re going to wind up 150 miles away from here. In my opinion that is absolutely wrong. If you are going to rehabilitate a child that has committed a violent act, it needs to be done in the community, not on the other side of Somerville when mom is stuck here without transportation.”
He feels his record of service proves that the African-American community should have no fear of his tenure if he becomes judge. Sugarmon, however, asked why Michael did not attend the NAACP candidate forum.
“My campaign staff had arranged a private event that I could not miss,” Michael said.
If elected, Sugarmon said his improvements would include more community involvement.
“You cannot return a child to the same environment and expect a different outcome. I will make sure that a family resource center will be created so we can understand how the family is positioned in terms of economics, parenting skills, and more, to not only make parents more accountable, but empower them. There are a lot of resources available to them that parents are not aware of.”
Another important change would be community-based mentors and community-based probation officers,” said Sugarmon. “I want them to become an active resource in the community.”