A local prosecutor has made public his intention to challenge a sitting judge in an election still two years away.
Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks recently began handing out campaign cards to seek the Criminal Court, Part II, judgeship, the seat held since 1988 by Judge Lynn Brown.
Challenging a sitting judge is a bold move, but Brooks said he can do the job better than Brown and provide a safer community for residents. Brooks also is very pointed in a quote on his campaign cards.
“We can no longer afford to have Lynn Brown mishandle the job of Criminal Court Judge. He has failed to conduct trials when needed, allowed cases to be continued too long and failed to protect our communities from repeat offenders who violate their probations again and again. We need a judge who values his duty to the community, and that’s why I am running,” the quote on the card states.
Brooks touts his 14 years as a prosecutor in the 1st Judicial District and more than 85 jury trials. Brooks is lead prosecutor on numerous murder, rape and child abuse cases heard in the four-county district, which includes Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson counties.
He said he’s starting his campaign so early — the local judicial election is in August 2014 — because he has little money to advertise and a lot of work to do getting his name known to approximately 30,000 active voters in the four counties.
Brooks is assigned to try cases in Judge Robert Cupp’s court and rarely appears on cases in Brown’s court. The campaign bid will eliminate Brooks’ appearances on cases in front of Brown.
He also will be limited to when he can actively campaign. Because he is a state employee, he cannot conduct any campaign activities while on the clock, unlike a private attorney might be able to do.
“The Little Hatch Act prevents me from campaigning on state time. Outside of my state hours, my time is my time,” he said. In past years, prosecutors have had to resign their position to run for public office, but Brooks’ boss, District Attorney General Tony Clark, has not adopted that policy since he took office.
In his first days of saying he will seek Brown’s seat, Brooks has opened a floodgate of criticism of Brown. One accomplishment noted on Brooks’ campaign card is that he successfully obtained a death penalty verdict against Howard Hawk Willis within four months of Brown stepping down from the case. Willis’ double murder case dragged on more than seven years and while many in the community blamed Willis, Brooks is the first person to publicly place blame on Brown.
“We would have a court date and invariably, Brown and Howard were jawing each other. Brown would get mad and slam something down. Every court appearance was just out of control,” Brooks said, going as far as to call Brown’s behavior on the bench “temper tantrums.”
Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who took over the case from Brown and had the trial finished within four months, treated Willis with respect and listened to what he had to say. That, Brooks said, left Willis speechless which allowed hearings to be completed quickly.
“For the first time I saw Howard Hawk Willis speechless because he had a judge courteously ask him what he had to say,” Brooks said.
Other issues Brooks noted about Brown is a tendency to allow violent offenders and probation violators back on probation even when they had committed other crimes.
One example, Brooks said, is a man named Terry Shepherd who was accused of assaulting an officer on two different occasions while trying to escape from being arrested after committing crimes while on probation. One officer was nearly hit by Shepherd’s vehicle and in the second incident the officer was dragged by Shepherd’s vehicle.
“The first and foremost job of a trial judge is to try cases if needed. Some cases can’t settle,” Brooks said. “I’ve witnessed him lean on one side or the other to try to get some plea bargain entered, stressing to defense attorneys how long the sentence is going to be if (their client) is convicted at trial. I’ve had a non-probatable case on his docket and he called my boss to crack down on me to make a probatable offer.
“Ethically, the trial judge is supposed to stay out of plea negotiations. That’s the parties’ business. The judge is there to try the case and make legal rulings,” Brooks said.
“He interjects himself in that. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve heard about it and it’s inappropriate.”
Brooks said he was hesitant to actively begin campaigning right now because Brown has suffered several health issues, but given the limited time he has and his plan to knock on doors as part of his effort, he needed to get started.
Brown has publicly stated that he has a blood clot in his leg and will be off the bench completely later this year for hip surgery. He has not made any comments about his intention to seek fourth full term.
Brown, a Carter County native, was appointed to his position in prior to the 1988 general election and had to run for election to finish that judicial term and then again when the judicial elections were scheduled in 1990. Each full term runs for eight years. Brown successfully ran for the office in 1988, 1990, 1998 and 2006.
Brooks is a native of Washington County and lives in Telford with his wife and daughter.