Two vying for Criminal Court judgeship

Becky Campbell • Apr 29, 2014 at 2:49 PM

For the first time in many years, the First Judicial District has the opportunity to vote for a judicial position without an incumbent on the ballot.

The Criminal Court Judge Part I, held by Judge Robert Cupp since 1998, has two viable candidates seeking the seat. Cupp did not file paperwork to seek re-election to the bench.

Dennis Brooks, an assistant district attorney, and Lisa Nidiffer Rice, a private practice lawyer, will go head-to-head on the May 6 Republican primary ballot.Rice has spent 27 years as an attorney with significant time both as defense attorney and prosecutor in the district.

“It’s just a whole different skill set to defend and it’s a different skill set to prosecute,” she said, adding that she has done both, which will give a “breadth and depth” to the position.

“I care about the courts. I care about how they’re run, how they’re perceived, I care about the justice system,” she said. “I have worked closely with law enforcement, prosecuted serious criminal cases and defended cases. It gives me a unique perspective on the courts,” she said.

Brooks, with 17 years as an attorney, has spent all but a couple of years as a prosecutor. He hasn’t been afraid to dismiss a case when he felt there was not enough evidence to carry forward, but he said he’s also tough on crime and a supporter of victims.

“Just as the accused have rights, Tennessee recognizes the rights of victims. Their rights to a speedy trial, restitution and a fair hearing will be emphasized. As a prosecutor who has stood with families of homicide victims, victims of sexual offenses and other serious crimes, (I) understand the stress and suffering of victims as they wait for justice,” he said.

Early voting for the May 6 Republican primary started last week and runs through May 1. The primary is May 6.

Below are questions the Press asked the three candidates for Criminal Court Judge:There has been discussion about Drug Court. Do you support implementation of a Drug Court in Criminal Court and how would you fund that? Also, is there a solution to help participants pay for treatment in a Drug Court?

BROOKS:It is my goal to establish a Drug Court at the Criminal Court level that serves each of our four counties. It is an ambitious dream, but it’s been done at the Criminal Court level in over a dozen judicial districts across Tennessee.

We have a drug abuse epidemic in every community of our district — more people die from overdose deaths in Tennessee than they do from homicides. We are not immune here. Drug Court allows judges to find a middle ground between prison and simple probation — participants must attend therapy, go to work, be drug tested repeatedly and be held accountable to the judge on a frequent basis.

How you fund the court is to do what other districts around the state are doing — obtaining state and federal grants as well as holding fundraisers. I have visited the Knox County Drug Court and watched firsthand how they are dealing with Criminal Court level addicts, and I have made contacts with drug court administrators around the state. If elected, I will be traveling the state learning how those communities put their programs together and I’ll bring the lessons back home. Currently the model of all drug courts in Tennessee is the one for Davidson County. They have a $1.5 million yearly budget for their in-patient system, and 95 percent of that money comes from a grant from our state government. If such a program is good enough to help Davidson County, it ought to be good enough for the people of Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington Counties. I’ll fight hard to ensure we get our fair share of help. Lastly, there are monies collected locally as part of court costs that we are losing every year because we do not have drug courts. Last year, Carter County lost around $12,000 to the state — money that was paid in by Carter County probationers but lost to the state’s general fund because there was no drug court to apply it to.

And it’s not a free ride for participants. In Knox County, they have to pay for their drug tests. In one five-county district in Middle Tennessee, I learned they have participants work and pay their rent for their “sober houses,” where they move into and learn a new way of living. Their program has been very successful and is one that I plan on learning more about since we need a model that helps people in Roan Mountain as much as it benefits Johnson City.

In my opinion, a meaningful drug court is a necessity for our region. Creating a drug court at the Sessions level is a nice step, but in my opinion, the rigors of drug court monitoring are only enforceable when the longer prison sentences of Criminal Court are used as the hammer to ensure compliance. If a person fails drug court in Sessions, they face 109 days of jail. If they fail drug court in Criminal Court, they could face years of prison. It only makes sense that participants will take drug court more seriously when the stakes are higher. The Davidson County program is proof that a drug court can effectively ease recidivism on hard cases of addiction — their participants average 15 arrests and years of incarceration prior to participation but 60 percent of the graduates successfully avoid recommitting crimes after graduation.

RICE:Drug Court is a wonderful alternative to incarceration of entry level, non-violent drug offenders. According to the Tennessee Association of Drug Court Professionals, Drug Courts were implemented to offer a “..diversionary programs dealing with less serious offenders.” While I fully support the use of this program in General Sessions Court, my concern is that drug offenders at the felony level of Criminal Court require more intensive intervention than what has traditionally been offered by Drug Courts. In my experience, handling these types of matters at both the misdemeanor and felony levels, drug offenders who have reached Criminal Court typically have had at least a couple of prior convictions and have continued to abuse drugs. Having sat beside many of these individuals and their families I realize that many wake up every day with their first and only goal being to obtain their drug of choice. For example, I have recently represented an individual who is facing felony level charges for the first time. He has been in an inpatient rehabilitation program for 7 months, and is clean for the first time in 8 years.

Prior out-patient and non-intensive programs at the misdemeanor level did not solve his problem.

A more intensive program such as the “Day Reporting Center,” funded partially by a federal grant obtained by Chief Mark Sirois and Major Karl Turner of the Johnson City Police Department, is offering an alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. The program meets every day, most all day, and provides intense drug counseling, drug screening, job interview skills, life skills, and other essential assistance.

While I agree that incarceration alone does not prevent drug offenders from re-using once they are released, the traditional drug court is better suited for those who do not have a lengthy drug history and prior attempts at rehabilitation and/or recovery.

The Drug Court’s requirements include the establishment of a team consisting of a Drug Court Coordinator, Probation Officer, Treatment Providers, Presiding Judge, Prosecutor, Defense Attorney and other program staff. Obviously, this requires substantial organizational efforts and funding for personnel and rehabilitation programs. These programs must comply with the ten components established by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The funds for operation are obtained partially from the fines levied on drug offenses and it is my understanding that between $15,000.00-$16,000.00 was collected last year. To obtain sufficient funds to operate a drug court in both General Sessions and Criminal Court, another source of funding, beyond that collected from drug offenders, would be required. Those funds have not been appropriated by the legislature for any program of this type in Criminal Court.How will you address the growing docket in Criminal Court?

BROOKS:First, the judge has to work at it. Being prepared for court, making sound decisions in a prompt manner and creating an atmosphere where people understand there are consequences to committing crime in this District all are factors that can help. I tell people that I believe in second chances but not six. People will see very quickly that I will run a court where repeat offenders are dealt with as sternly as Tennessee law allows. My court days will not feature long lines of probation violators being turned out onto the streets to commit more crime.

However, in addition to being strict with those who commit crime, we need to be mindful that drug addiction fuels much of the crime we see. We have to do more than just tell people to not use drugs; we have to give them the tools and knowledge they need to battle addiction. Measures such a drug rehab programs, a Drug Court and encouraging participation in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous are important.

RICE:For 16 years I have overseen and administered my law firm. The experience of running a business efficiently will transfer to my administration of Criminal Court. The dockets for Criminal Court become unmanageable when older cases are not expeditiously tried or otherwise resolved and new cases are continuing to come into the Court from General Sessions and the Grand Jury. Inmates with pending violations of probation can be brought to court to help ease the overcrowding in the jail when court dates set aside for trials are not utilized. Proper adherence to a schedule for breaks during court and establishing specific dates for the heavy caseload carried by attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office can be used for better management of the court’s existing case load. However, a judge has no control over the number of new cases that are indicted. As crime increases, the number of new cases increase proportionally. What changes would you like to implement, other than docket management, to help the court run more efficiently?

BROOKS:Anyone who has seen me work as municipal judge in Jonesborough can see that I do not waste time with irrelevant matters. I naturally work in an efficient manner. However, I will not seek efficiency over effectiveness at curbing crime or affording due process to defendants. In talking to thousands of voters the past year, people are more concerned about the same people doing the same crimes over and over. I believe the best judge is the one who does the most good in a day, not the judge who finishes his/her docket first.

Unicoi and Johnson counties need to see their Criminal Court judges more often than one day a month. If you’re working through dockets efficiently, we can have split days where one Criminal Court judge works, say in Washington County in the morning and Unicoi County in the afternoon. The other judge does the opposite. Same for Carter and Johnson counties. That causes more work for the judges, but it can help in easing the backlog of violators that have wait too long in the smaller counties to see the judge.

When the county is holding a violator in jail pending being sentenced by the judge, the county is not getting reimbursed by the state for the costs of incarceration.

RICE:In addition to the response provided in the first question, there are new procedures that can be implemented to manage the caseload in the First Judicial District. For more complex cases, establishing definite dates for filing and argument of pre-trial motions, plea deadlines and trial dates, utilizing a scheduling conference similar to that used in federal courts. Giving both the State and Defense ample time to prepare their cases, but adhering to the schedule, absent substantial and unforeseen circumstances, these types of cases can be moved along much more expeditiously. For example, the only death penalty murder in more than a decade in this district, Howard Hawk Willis, occurred in 2002, the same time as the Washington D.C. sniper case of John Lee Malvo. Having charges in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, Malvo was charged, tried and executed before Willis ever faced the first day of trial in Washington County. This resulted in thousands of dollars in pre-trial incarceration expense for Washington County. I believe some changes, described above, implemented in a consistent fashion, can make an impact to help reduce the court’s backlog and costly delays of this type. What makes you the best candidate for this job?

BROOKS:Lawyers are like doctors — some specialize in one area, some in others. My specialty is Criminal Court and the matters decided there. My 15 years of practicing exclusively in Criminal Court make me best prepared to handle the issuance of a search warrant or the preparation of jury instructions the first week on the job. I have the most experience dealing with jury trial issues and search and seizure laws, and I have experience as a sitting judge in Jonesborough Municipal Court. There is nothing I could do at this point to better prepare myself for the Criminal Court judge’s position. Voters should also feel assured that I will be the tough but fair judge they desire, as I believe I have proven myself as tough but fair as a prosecutor.

RICE:The Tennessee Bar Association, in their efforts to assist voters evaluating judicial candidates, recommends the experience of a particular candidate be considered in terms of extent and variety as a litigator and for depth and breadth of professional experience. I have practiced law for 27 years, serving as private counsel for individuals in criminal and civil matters and businesses, as well as governmental entities. I have also worked as a prosecutor in all four counties of the First Judicial District, handling all types of cases from misdemeanors to first-degree murders. I am the only candidate familiar with both sides of the criminal courtroom, and the distinct requirements of prosecuting and defending criminal cases. I am licensed in Federal Court, handling both civil and criminal matters, and have appeared before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, both civil and criminal.

I have been running my own business for over 16 years. I have no doubt that managing employees, generating revenue, managing scheduling and the day to day operations of a law firm will provide invaluable assistance in the administration of the Criminal Court, its schedule, court personnel and other issues confronting the management of the docket on a continuing basis.

Representing Carter County 911 for the past several years has given me an opportunity to work closely with all levels of law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, emergency management and city and volunteer fire departments, where the first calls come in to begin the criminal process. The end of this process is in the Criminal courtroom and I have experience at every point along the way. I am the only candidate with the variety, depth and breadth of experience recommended by the Tennessee Bar Association for a judicial position, such as Criminal Court Judge Part I.Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos