Among the many items on Gov. Bill Haslam's plate is an opportunity to demonstrate his political acumen and savvy relative to an appointee to serve out the remaining term of the late Shelby County Criminal Court Judge W. Otis Higgs Jr.
Higgs died unexpectedly on Feb. 15, leaving a tremendous legacy of service on the bench and to the City of Memphis and Shelby County.
This is an important appointment for many reasons.
First, the replacement of a jurist the caliber of Judge Higgs is critical for those with business before criminal court division two and for maintaining the relative efficiency with which cases are dispersed and disposed of throughout all the criminal courts of Shelby County.
Secondly, Judge John Fowlkes' recent appointment to the federal bench – combined with Judge Higgs' passing – has left a glaring lack of diversity in the criminal courts, where the preponderance of the litigants are African American in a city and county with a majority African-American population.
Although justice is supposed to be blind, both distant and recent history (Juvenile Court findings by the Justice Department for example) demonstrates that in many instances that simply isn't the case. Cultural relations and experience matter in how justice is ultimately relayed.
Gov. Haslam has gained a reputation as a moderate conservative, with an ability to work across the aisle and build consensus while using a "down home" sense of people and easy communications to build social and political capital with constituents and legislators. He is a quick study relative to the pertinent facts and history of an issue.
There are a number of pertinent historical facts for Haslam to consider relative to this appointment.
In 1965, then-Gov. Frank G. Clement made a bold and historic move, appointing 40-year-old Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks to fill a vacancy in the Shelby County criminal court. The move made Dr. Hooks Tennessee's first African-American to serve as criminal court judge. A year later, he won a full term to that same judicial seat.
In 1964, H.T. Lockard become the first African American to hold elected office in Shelby County since Reconstruction when he won a seat on what would be the predecessor to the County Commission. In 1975, he would become Judge Lockard.
In 1970, Higgs, 37, was appointed by then-Gov. Buford Ellington to Division 4, Shelby County criminal court. He served until 1975, at which time then-Gov. Ray Blanton appointed Lockard (at age 55) to fill the seat. Judge Lockard retained the seat through subsequent elections, retiring in 1994 following an illness.
Meanwhile, Judge Higgs moved on to hold several positions of distinction, including becoming the only African American to hold the position of Shelby County Sheriff. In 1998, he ran successfully for the judgeship in division 2. He was re-elected in 2006 for a term that expires in 2014.
Interesting how interconnected things are; how they seem to come full circle. Lockard, Hooks, Higgs, Lockard and back to Higgs – each bold, a pioneer, African American. All were relatively young when initially appointed or elected, and all in Memphis and Shelby County.
It's also notable that during the '60's many African Americans were members of the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln). So, in some instances you had a Caucasian governor of a different political party appointing African Americans across the aisle.
Now in that legacy and tradition, Gov. Haslam has an opportunity to appoint someone to the remaining year of Judge Higgs' term. He can identify and appoint someone with the opportunity to be a new-era pioneer and a catalyst for change for a new generation.
Each candidate must meet several basic criteria, which include being an attorney, at least 30 years of age, a resident of Tennessee for five years and a resident of the district for one year.
While there are myriad potential candidates, what about those with an interest, high potential, experience and a penchant to adjudicate the cases and serve the people before the court with fairness and compassion? What about those cut from the cloth of Hooks, Lockard and Higgs?
I've been able to identify three to whom Gov. Haslam should give the highest consideration. They are:
Damon Griffin – Age, 37. Experience: Assistant District Attorney General, serving as a member of the Special Prosecution Unit (SPU) and the Gang and Narcotics Unit. A successful trial attorney in that office, trying over 30 jury trials, including the state's most horrific mass murder, and other cases featured on the A&E Network's "The First 48." Currently, Chief Ethics Officer for Shelby County Government. Service/Unique Experience: Provides pro bono services to the Headquarters Jurisdictional Assembly, Church of God in Christ, Inc. (COGIC), where he serves as parliamentarian and counsel for the Assembly. An ordained and licensed youth minister in COGIC and adjunct professor at Southwest Tennessee Community College. Ten years of legal experience.
Carolyn Watkins – Age, 52. Experience: Served as an Assistant Public Defender, handling felony preliminary hearings to capital murder cases. Currently, Administrator for the Shelby County Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance. Service/Unique Experience: Member of numerous non-profit boards, including Op-Act, Grace House, The Klondike CDC and the "Stop the Killing in Klondike Task Force." Volunteered time on issues from crime reduction to economic growth and development. Over 23 years of legal experience.
Glenn Wright – Age, 57. Experience: Served as an Assistant Public Defender, Assistant District Attorney, and a lawyer in private practice. Also served as a Special Judge in both General Sessions Criminal and Criminal Court of Shelby County. Currently, in private practice. Service/Unique Experience: Served as a prosecutor, public defender and in private practice. Twenty-eight years of experience.