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Lawyer in Baby Messiah naming case hopes for quick resolution

Jamie Satterfield, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Jan 7, 2014 at 6:00 PM

(MCT) – The attorney for a Cocke County child support magistrate embroiled in a controversy over stripping the name "Messiah" from a baby boy said Monday that she has responded to a judicial ethics complaint and hopes for a speedy resolution of the case.

The response by Cocke County Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew, made public Monday afternoon, provides scant information about her anticipated defense to charges that she violated the state's canons of judicial conduct when she ordered baby Messiah DeShawn McCullough's first name changed to Martin – over the objection of the baby's parents – in August.

Ballew's attorney, Van Martin, would only say Monday that the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, which polices judges, has been "very gracious" and he hopes the case will be settled soon.

In the response, Ballew denies violating judicial codes of conduct but admits the facts underlying the complaint, which was filed in October on behalf of baby Messiah's parents, Jawaan McCullough and Jalessa Martin.

Ballew was required by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct to reply by Monday to the complaint.

Neither parent sought a change of the baby's first name and instead were seeking to list Jawaan McCullough as the child's father and establish child support. But Ballew ordered the baby's first name changed as well, writing, "Messiah means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God's Kingdom. Messiah is a title that is held only by Jesus Christ."

Ballew's August decision was quickly overturned by Cocke County Chancellor Telford Forgety as a violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The judicial conduct board, however, is still pursuing a complaint against Ballew.

The board is accusing Ballew of violating the canons of judicial conduct, including compliance with the law, promoting confidence in the judiciary, impartiality and fairness, and making statements on pending cases. Ballew concedes in her response that she gave an interview to WBIR, Channel 10, the day after her ruling in which she stated, "The word Messiah is a title and it's a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ."

Van Martin on Monday declined to discuss the specifics of the case against Ballew. But he said Ballew was anxious to resolve the complaint and certain that the board would treat her fairly.

"I think it would be inappropriate to respond to the specifics," Martin said. "The folks in Nashville have been very gracious. We'll see how this plays out."

According to the complaint, filed by board Disciplinary Counsel Timothy Discenza and Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Patrick McHale, a hearing could be set within 60 days of the official filing of Ballew's response. A specific penalty is not listed in the board's notice of charges against Ballew. Penalties could range from a private censure to disbarment.

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