Five vie for 15th District Division II general sessions judge

Staff Reports • Updated Jul 12, 2014 at 3:21 PM

With the upcoming retirement of Judge Robert Hamilton, five candidates – Haywood Barry, Harry Christensen, Shelley Thompson Gardner, Ellis H.  TreyT Marshall III and Andy Wright – are in the race for Division II general sessions judge in the Aug. 7 election. 

Barry is a longtime resident of Lebanon and Wilson County and is well known for his community service. He most recently served two terms as Ward 5 city councilor for Lebanon. He is a graduate of Lebanon High School, Tennessee Tech University and the Nashville School of Law. In addition, he has extensive experience and many hours of specialized continuing judicial education.

Since his retirement from a 24-year stint as Division I judge, Barry has for the past 16 years substituted throughout Middle Tennessee to help other judges. He has remained up-to-date on all laws as a continuing member of the Tennessee General Sessions Judges Conference. He is also a member of many legal and judicial education organizations. He resumed the practice of law from 2000 until 2011.

Barry is married to Jean Barry, who taught elementary school for many years in Wilson County and Lebanon. They have two adult children, Ken Barry, who is a civil and environmental engineer with S&ME and lives with his family in Norris, Tenn. Their daughter, Julie Barry Gatlin, is a real estate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services and lives with her family in Lebanon. Haywood and Jean are the proud grandparents of five grandchildren.

Barry is a longtime member of the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. In 2008, he was awarded life membership in the chamber. He is also a well-known runner in the Wilson County area. He has ran for more than 40 years and logged more than 35,000 miles in pursuit of good health.

Over the years, Christensen worked in Duluth, Minn., Dallas and then Chicago until he moved to Nashville for a better opportunity. He graduated from Nashville School of Law in 2000 and opened his practice in Lebanon that same year. He said since opening his practice, he has had large and small cases throughout the state. 

Christensen and his wife of 27 years, Annette Diane Christensen, moved to the area about 20 years ago from northern Illinois. He was raised in South Dakota and northern Minnesota. He graduated high school from Hibbing Mountain High School in 1974 and received his undergraduate degree from Bemidji State University in 1979. 

He taught school for a short time and them became a longshoreman in Duluth, Minn. He drove heavy equipment and handled various commodities for shipment. 

He and his wife have one daughter, DeeAnna Faye, who is 11 and attends Sam Houston Elementary School. His family also tends to an infant, who is 1 ½ years old. Additionally, his mother, L. Joan Christensen, has lived in an attached apartment for the past 17 years. 

Gardner has been an attorney in the public defenders office for 12 years and docket manager for all criminal courts in Wilson County for 10 years, including juvenile court, general sessions court and criminal circuit court. She also interned with the 15th Judicial District public defender’s office while attending the Nashville School of Law. 

Gardner has handled thousands of criminal cases in Wilson County general sessions. On a daily basis, she works with judges, district attorney’s office, clerk’s office, probation officers, other attorneys and law enforcement. She has attended numerous seminars concerning criminal law and spoken to Leadership Wilson about the local judicial system.

She works with the 15th Judicial District Drug Court Program, sat as judge for and helped to install the Wilson County Teen Court Program. She supports Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Child Advocacy Center, Books from Birth and Big Brother of Mt. Juliet. She is also a member of the 15th Judicial District BAR Association, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Wilson One, Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce, Lebanon Breakfast Rotary and board of directors for the Wilson County Fair.

Gardner graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Lebanon High School, with honors from Cumberland University and earned her law degree from Nashville School of Law. 

She’s been married to Joe Gardner for 12 years, and the couple has two sons, ages 8 and 5. 

Marshall has been in private practice for 11 years.  During that time, he practiced in multiple areas and courts of law. He is experienced in family, criminal and personal injury law. He attended college at the University of Tennessee at Martin and law school at Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in Memphis.   

Marshall is married to Jennifer Moore Marshall, a Wilson County native.  She teaches kindergarten at Stoner Creek Elementary School and was selected by her peers as “Teacher of the Year.”   They have four children who attend Stoner Creek.     

Wright was a Metro Nashville Police Officer from 1991-2002, and worked undercover as a drug enforcement agent for eight of those 11 years.

He left law enforcement in 2002 to begin his career as an attorney and spent about two years practicing as a defense lawyer in both criminal and civil law.

In 2004, he was appointed, and currently serves as, the first full-time city attorney for Lebanon where, in addition to his other duties, he acts as the city’s prosecutor in Lebanon City Court.

In 2009, he was appointed Mt. Juliet city judge and currently presides over the Mt. Juliet City Court.

Wright holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from Middle Tennessee State University in 1992 and a doctorate of jurisprudence from the Nashville School of Law in 2001.

Wright and his wife, Jill, live in downtown Mt. Juliet with their two children, Drew, 12, and Abby, 9, and their two Shih Tzu dogs, Molly and Casey.

Wright is involved in both community activities and professional affiliations ranging from acting as a “celebrity” judge in the Mt. Juliet Senior Citizens annual Barbecue Pig Calling Contest to acting as a hearing committee member for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which is charged with disciplining attorneys for unethical conduct.

What prompted you to seek office? Was it a personal initiative or did others encourage you? 

Barry: When Judge Robert Hamilton announced he would retire, I became interested in returning to the general sessions court. I asked lots of people what they thought, and the answers were overwhelmingly positive After more contemplation, I decided to run. 

Christensen: The retirement of Judge Robert Hamilton prompted me to seek the bench. I spoke with several colleagues who supported my candidacy and my personal beliefs.

Gardner: It was both a personal initiative and encouragement from others. It has truly been a lifelong dream to be a judge. Since before law school, I have been preparing myself for this position.  For the past 13 years, I have worked in this particular courtroom that I am now seeking office for Division II general sessions judge. All of the individuals I have a privilege working with on a daily basis, personally know and see the experience I have when dealing with this courtroom.  The encouragement from others for me to seek this position was received with much gratitude. 

Marshall: It has always been my dream to become a judge. I believe it is important for Wilson County to have officials with strong character, a deep-rooted love for the community, and who will treat everyone in court with respect and dignity. This position will enable me to repay the community that has so graciously given to me and my family. Although I am actively involved through my church, Rotary, Kiwanis and coaching little league sports, this position will give me an even greater opportunity to help build a better Wilson County.  

Wright: I’m seeking the Division II general sessions judgeship because I have long aspired to be a general sessions judge. Over the last 23 years, I have committed my life to building an incredibly diverse base of both professional and life experience that provides me with the tools and abilities to be the best general sessions judge the voters of Wilson County can elect. My devotion to public service coupled with my training, education, and experience in the law will allow me to continue in our judges’ tradition of excellent service to our citizens.

What are the most important issues in your race, and how do you plan to address them? 

Barry: Being a good judge is not an easy task. I know this since I did the job for 24 years until more difficult circumstances arose. My health is excellent, and I have the stamina to do the work. 

Christensen: I believe it’s protection of citizens’ rights, well-being and property, conservation of taxpayer assets and family obligations. The easiest way to handle most of these issues is to make the state play within the rules that the courts and legislature have laid down for them. Additionally, alternative sentencing can relieve jail expenses and similar costs to the taxpayers. 

Gardner: The most important issue is to keep our community a safe environment.  As judge, I would be fair and unbiased.  I would listen to each case on an individual basis. I would apply the necessary laws and make sure the consequences or punishment fits the crime.  There are individuals who make mistakes and there are individuals who need rehabilitation, probation and/or incarceration.  I want to know that the decisions I make when I place judgment on an individual, are fair, just, according to the law, keeping people on the right track and making our community safer.

Marshall: As a judge, it is crucial that each case should be judged by the evidence presented in court.  I will listen to the proof presented by each side and base my decisions on the evidence and the law as set by the legislature.  Judges should not legislate from the bench.  It is solely my job to ensure that the law is upheld. Additionally, a judge should be fair and impartial in all situations. The courtroom setting should be treated with respect, and everyone should be judged by the evidence and the law.  

Wright: The judge of the criminal division of general sessions court, because of a crowded daily docket, must be able to do a number of important things and do them well. The judge must run as efficient a court as possible so that the time of attorneys, police officers, and citizens in court is not wasted. The judge must make quick, but well-informed and fair, decisions. The judge must ensure swift justice while additionally ensuring the Constitution and our laws are upheld. I have a proven record of doing all of this as the Mt. Juliet city judge and will continue doing so if elected.

What would you say to voters opposed to your running for office to convince them you are the most qualified? 

Barry: Of all the five candidates for this post, I am the only one who has a proven record as a general sessions judge for many years both here in Wilson County and as a substitute throughout Middle Tennessee for the past 16 years. 

Christensen: I would point out that I am the only candidate to have broad-based personal work experience, as I had a 25-year working career prior to entering law school, and how these experiences can be related to citizen problems in their daily experiences. Additionally, I have a long and involved experience within the general sessions court for Wilson County, working more than 14 years with family law, business law, and, of course, criminal law, extensively. 

Gardner: No other candidate can say they have practiced before Judge Hamilton in this particular courtroom for as long as I have. No other candidate can say they have handled as many criminal cases in this particular courtroom as I have. As an attorney for the public defender’s office, I have managed the dockets for all Wilson County criminal courts for the past 10 years.  I understand the meaning of managing cases.  Further, I am a lifelong resident of Wilson County and I deeply care about our judicial system, our community and how both can and do affect each other.

Marshall: In my 11 years of private practice, I have had the opportunity to witness many judges in various courtrooms across middle Tennessee. I have observed judges that run their courtrooms in a variety of ways, some good and some bad. I will draw on this experience to run a fair and efficient courtroom.     

Wright: The judge of the criminal division of general sessions court makes daily decisions that could deprive someone of his or her most precious possession, their freedom. The voters of Wilson County deserve a judge that has the training, education, and experience to make a firm, but also the fairest and most well informed decision. I am the only candidate with the background and experience capable of looking at a situation from all angles before making such an important decision. My uniquely diverse background ensures the citizens of Wilson County that they can trust me to make the right decisions in these situations.

What do you bring to the table that your opponents do not? 

Barry: See the answer to question three. 

Christensen: I bring my personal and professional work experience away from the law, as well as my broad-based involvement within the various functions of the general sessions courts in Wilson and other counties within Tennessee. Additionally, my experience outside of the law regularly centered around team-building experiences, another acquired skill which seems lacking in some within the legal profession. 

Gardner: The experience and knowledge it takes to run and manage this particular courtroom. I have been in this courtroom for 13 years. I handled cases in this courtroom my last year of law school during an internship. On a daily basis, I have the privilege of working with our judges, law enforcement, probation officers, the clerk’s office, the district attorneys office, other attorneys and our community. I have handled thousands of criminal cases in this particular courtroom – cases ranging from DUI to first-degree murder. Also, I am a female and I would be the first female general sessions judge.

Marshall: I have the most diversified background of all of the candidates. I have experience in multiple types of law and in many different courtrooms in Tennessee. My experience enables me to see each case from all perspectives, listen to the proof from both sides and follow the law in each circumstance.  

Wright: The prosecution and defense of a criminal case typically involves four main people, the police officer, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge. I am the only candidate who can say he brings experience in each of these roles to the table. My uniquely diverse background allows me a perspective of standing in the shoes of each of these individuals involved in the criminal justice process. Unlike my opponents who claim experience in only one area, I am capable of having a deeper insight into each case as the facts are presented and the laws are applied.

How is your experience – or lack of experience – a plus or minus for the position you are seeking? 

Barry: My experience is the great difference I bring to this office. 

Christensen: As mentioned, I bring team building, broad-based exposure to constitutional protections and rights so as to protect the citizenry from the potential misuse of the power of the state, as well as protecting citizens from abuse from one another. Hopefully these experiences would help me in efforts to save taxpayer expenses spent on the courts and law enforcement. 

Gardner: My experience is definitely a plus for the position I am seeking.  If I had to take over for Judge Hamilton in general sessions tomorrow, I could absolutely do it, no questions asked. I understand how the flow of the courtroom and the managing of the cases on the docket, affects everyone involved, every day.  This would include our criminal circuit court, as well. Some cases have to pass through general sessions before they get to criminal circuit court. What is done in general sessions can affect our criminal circuit court judges and their dockets.

Marshall: I have represented thousands of clients, often in difficult situations. I have also had the pleasure of working with opposing attorneys, mediators, and judges. All of this enables me to look at cases from a range of perspectives and do a better job of coming to the right decision for all concerned.

Wright: How can you claim to be the most qualified candidate for a criminal judgeship? If you have no firsthand knowledge about why police officers think, act, and say the things they do. If your only view of the courtroom has been from the defense table. If you’ve never protected our citizens from law breakers as a prosecutor. If you have no experience as a judge. None of my opponents have experience in all of these areas to draw upon like I do.  Because of this, I can truthfully claim to be the most qualified candidate.

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