Shelby County Judicial Races: The Parties Choose 

Democrats and Republicans make their endorsement lists, but does partisanship skew the issue?

click to enlarge Judicial aspirant Julie Dichtel Byrd with GOP activist Arnold Weiner

Jackson Baker

Judicial aspirant Julie Dichtel Byrd with GOP activist Arnold Weiner

There are all kinds of human stories in this campaign year. There is Julie Byrd's, for example. One of four candidates in the highly competitive race for Circuit Court Judge, District 1, Byrd shows up at every event imaginable — that being one of the viable modes of running for judicial office, which in theory at least is not circumscribed by the matter of partisan affiliation.

Byrd's full name is Julie Dichtel Byrd. The middle or maiden name may ring a bell for people whose memories go back a generation or so. Her late father was attorney Francis E. Dichtel, who first won public notoriety back in the 1970s for his perpetual and futuristic add-ons to his Mendenhall Street address, which challenged building code regulations, used up every square inch of available space on his lot, and antagonized his neighbors no end.

More significantly for his daughter's future life and career, the senior Dichtel was first suspended and finally, in 1998, disbarred for a series of what the Board of Professional Responsibility found to be improper acts, up to and including the misuse of clients' funds.

At the time, his daughter was a lawyer herself and associated with him in practice, though she was not involved in the misdeeds he was accused of. In fact, upon discovering them, she had been forced into a Sophie's Choice of sorts. As she puts it today, "I turned him in."

Subsequently, the senior Dichtel underwent weight loss by liposuction and made a point of saving a portion of the adipose tissue removed from him, bottling it, and, evoking a famous Shakespearean reproach, sending it to his daughter in a container labeled "Pound of Flesh."

It is perhaps understandable that Dichtel's daughter opted subsequently to get a little distance on these events, choosing to live and work in neighboring Tipton County. That bears on our current saga.

Byrd was an attendee at a meeting of the Shelby County Young Republicans at the La Hacienda Restaurant at Poplar and Highland, Monday night, to hear a speech by Bobby Carter, a sitting judge in Division 3 of Criminal Court and a candidate for reelection himself. 

An aside: Carter's remarks to the GOP group, probably a welcome break to him from the grind of daily campaigning, concerned his recent participation as a member of a special five-member panel sitting in lieu of the state Supreme Court on a suit brought by John Jay Hooker of Nashville challenging the state's retention method of reelection for state appellate judges. 

The panel found against Hooker and, ipso facto, against the prospect of appellate judges having to undergo the kind of direct election process facing trial judges like Carter et al.

Besides Carter's address, the point of Monday night's meeting was to introduce the Shelby County Republican Party's judicial endorsees, chosen earlier by the party's steering committee.

Byrd had not been so chosen, but was comfortable about being there, inasmuch as neither had any of her three opponents in District 1 — Felicia Corbin JohnsonLeah J. Roen, and Kyle Wiggins. All three, like Byrd, were taking their first shot at a judgeship, and the GOP steering committee had decided not to distinguish among them.

It had been otherwise for the Shelby County Democrats, whose executive committee had met on Thursday night and narrowed the field of potential endorsees in District 1 down to Byrd and Corbin Johnson, the sole criterion apparently being evidence of having voted in Democratic primaries over the years while eschewing Republican ones.

The general tenor of that meeting, which has since become notorious among Democrats and non-Democrats alike (and especially among judicial candidates) is best captured by that forthright party loyalist Steve Steffens, proprietor of the LeftwingCracker blog, a yellow-dog Democratic forum if there ever was one.

Observed Steffens this week in a blog post entitled "On the Judicial Endorsements": "I was struck by the sheer absurdity of the theater that I was witnessing. Backbiting, mud-slinging, lying, and deceit were slung around in a capricious manner."

A few paragraphs down, Steffens wrote: "The process for endorsing was immediately thrown into disarray by Felicia Corbin Johnson attacking Julie Byrd ..." 

The thrust of Corbin Johnson's criticism was that Byrd had gone through a 24-year period of not voting in Shelby County. It was duly noted, by Byrd and her supporters, that, in Steffens' words, "What she [Corbin Johnson] left out was that Byrd in that time has lived in Mumford and commuted into the city ... and was active in the Tipton County Democratic Party and had served as its chairwoman."

Corbin Johnson would get the party endorsement in a floor vote, but, the meeting became something of a confusing melee from then on. 

Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee was forced to make a stirring speech of self-defense for the crime of having voted in a few Republican primaries, and Criminal Court Judge Mark Ward, a well-ranked lawyer and the author of the state's basic primer on Criminal Court procedure, was penalized for the same offense.

Carter declined to come, after noticing that his opponent, Latonya Sue Burrow, was a member of the Democrats' selection committee.

The real issue, of course, is whether, in a county without partisan races for judges, endorsements by political parties do anything more than confuse the issue. 

In any case, Julie Byrd and the 80 other candidates for judicial office in Shelby County, in an election process that ends on August 7th, soldier on.

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