Much attention has been paid of late to a move on the Shelby County Commission to establish a second Juvenile Court judge who would operate alongside the newly elected and installed judge, Curtis Person, in some way that has not yet been fully specified.
A majority of eight members of the commission -- the seven majority Democrats, plus Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter -- voted to create the new judgeship, but, when Person began legal efforts to block its implementation, Commissioner Deidre Malone, who had made the proposal, withdrew it temporarily in order to give it a legal and technical vetting. It is sure to return to the agenda, however, and indications are that the proposal will receive at least the same number of votes as last time.
Meanwhile, a new issue has been raised by three Democratic commissioners who support the new judgeship: Malone, Sidney Chism, and Henri Brooks have called for a federal investigation of Juvenile Court for allegedly allowing authorities in Germantown and Bartlett to route youthful offenders into diversion programs not available to inner-city youth.
"The court has been operating separate programs for suburban juveniles at taxpayer expense and in violation of Federal and State anti-discrimination laws," the three commissioner charged, going on to say: "We are appalled at the disparate treatment of African-American children and families. It begs the question, 'Who is making policy at Juvenile Court and are there any attorneys or others there with even a fundamental knowledge of anti-discrimination laws and the illegality of separate and unequal practices?'"
The three commissioners then asked for a shutdown on federal funds to Juvenile Court, pending the results of their proposed investigation.
In a speech to the downtown Rotary Club on Tuesday, Person took advantage of the opportunity to rebut the commissioners' basic charge. While he had no objection to youth-services bureaus operated by the two suburban municipalities, he agreed with the objecting commissioners that Juvenile Court has been bypassed as the central authority and should not have been. He said he had so informed municipal authorities in Germantown and Bartlett: "The issue is the law. They must follow the law."
Person also did his best also to counter the case for a second judge. It is true, he acknowledged, that Shelby County's Juvenile Court system -- consisting of both an administrative and a judicial division and obliged to handle child-support matters as well -- is overburdened. But creating a second judge would not solve and might even worsen the problem by confusing lines of authority, Person argued. The remedy, he said, was not in altering the current judicial structure, whereby one elected judge assigns cases to referees for trial. "We're all functioning at 75 percent of capacity," he told the Rotarians. The problem, he said, was lack of sufficient funding to arrange for more caseworkers and contract lawyers to get backlogged cases to trial.
Person's bottom-line case: The issue is not one of black-and-white -- in any sense of the term. It was good, in any case, to hear the current judge's views.