Wilson County general sessions court Judge John Gwin will leave the bench and actually resume the game of life he put on hold to wear the robes when he retires at the end of the year.
The Wilson County Commission plans to appoint his replacement during its meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Wilson County Courthouse.
Gwin, who turned 69 in September, has served as family court judge for the past 10 years in Wilson County.
“I’m going to travel…some. My wife and I like to camp. We have an RV we tow behind the truck. I’m going to see all the things I haven’t been able to see. A judge can’t take off three weeks at a time or four weeks at a time. You can’t go to the West Coast in an RV and not be gone three or four weeks. It just physically can’t be done, so we are going to do that. And I have grandchildren who are 7 and 4. That speaks for itself. And I like my ham radio hobby. I’ve been doing it since 1966. I’m still doing it after 52 years plus, so I’m going to be doing that some.
“And I probably won’t be biting my tongue when I see something stupid and feel the urge to comment on it. I can’t do that right now. So if I put myself out for that reason, I’m no longer going to bite my tongue.”
Gwin said he doesn’t plan to practice law or handle mediations, calling it a mistake.
“The attorneys don’t want to deal with judges who are no longer on the bench,” Gwin said. “It seldom works out well. So I will stay away from it. That’s my plan.”
Gwin started his legal career as a family law practitioner in 1977 and continued until 2008. He was appointed municipal judge in Mt. Juliet in 1993 and also served in that capacity until 2008 when he was elected general sessions court judge with juvenile court jurisdiction in the first family court judge election in Wilson County.
It’s a far cry from Gwin’s humble beginnings growing up in Old Hickory.
“I carried newspapers until I was old enough to get a health permit,” he said. “There were no restaurants in Old Hickory. If you went out to eat, you went to one of the other drug stores, each one had a soda fountain. So when I was old enough to get a health permit, I went to work at the soda fountain and overlapped that some. Then, throughout high school, I worked at the soda fountain, and I had an uncle who bought me a lawnmower, so I mowed yards. I made money and paid for my ham radio hobby, pretty much.”
Gwin graduated from DuPont High School in Old Hickory, which was later destroyed by fire. He lamented it may have been the best fire that could have happened, because his school records burned, along with the building.
“After DuPont graduation, I worked for a year at the Easter Seal camp out on Benders Ferry and did the maintenance,” Gwin said. “Then, I went in the service in 1968. I graduated in 1967 and went in the service in 1968 and served until ’72.”
Gwin served as a Russian linguist for the Air Force Security Service and studied for his specialized military duties at Syracuse University.
“I got out of the service on a Friday and started at [the University of Tennessee] on Tuesday, and in the meantime I drove to Kansas City, got married and drove a U-Haul back to Knoxville. It was a busy weekend.”
Gwin said he finished his undergraduate work in two years due to his previous time at Syracuse, and completed his law degree in two years, as well. He graduated in 1976 and passed the bar exam in February 1977.
“I’ve been doing family law ever since, 41 years,” he said.
During that time, Gwin said he’s been involved in thousands of cases, whether on the bench or as an attorney, and many are memorable due to the circumstances. He shared one in particular for early on in his career.
“I will give you an example that goes back further,” he said. “In about 1977 or ’78, I was trying a divorce in Fourth Circuit Court in Nashville. It was an elderly couple who hadn’t been married very long with no children, no real estate, no vehicles. They didn’t have anything but a parrot. They couldn’t agree on custody for the parrot. The proof that was adduced at trial was that these parrots could live 25-30 years. And neither one wanted to give up the parrot. I looked up and I noticed Judge Trimble’s ears had turned bright red. I knew it was time to quit putting on proof. He ruled that the parrot would be shared six months with one parent and six months with the other, whereupon they couldn’t agree on which one got the first six months.
“I think I learned a long time ago that it’s not always about value…There’s still folks who want to be declared the winner in the divorce if it means getting the dog. We’ve got a case right now that involves goats and who gets the goats. To those folks, it’s extraordinarily serious.”
Gwin is past president of the Tennessee Municipal Judges Conference and the 15th Judicial District Bar Association and past member of the Tennessee Judicial Council. He’s a member of the Tennessee Bar Association and the National College of Probate Judges. In community involvement, Gwin is a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow, past president of CASA of Wilson County and West Wilson Senior Citizens Center. He’s also past board member of United Way of Wilson County, Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce, Prospect and Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto received notice of Gwin’s intent to retire at the end of the year and recently outlined plans to replace him.
Hutto said the Wilson County Commission is required by state law to fill the position within 120 days of the vacancy.
“Since we have knowledge of this vacancy prior to its occurrence, we have asked our county attorney Mike Jennings his opinion if we could proceed with the process to fill the vacancy,” Hutto said. “Jennings saw no reason we could not move forward so our court docket in January could be handled on time and the new judge selected would have proper time to transition.”
Hutto said he received Gwin’s retirement letter Sept. 17. Public notice must run in the newspaper a minimum of seven days prior to the commission meeting when the vacancy will be filled to advertise the position to be filled.
He said the position would be filled during Monday’s commission meeting. The process, as outlined in state law, on how to select the person to fill Gwin’s seat on the bench is specified in the commission’s rules of order.
Hutto said once the commission appoints a judge, he or she will have until Dec. 31 to get everything in order and will take office Jan. 1. The appointed judge will be in office until the next general election on Aug. 6, 2020. The judge who wins the election will finish the term Gwin began, which will end in 2022, when all judges statewide will be up for re-election to their respective eight-year terms.
Prior to Monday’s commission meeting, Wilson County registered voters will be allowed to submit names for consideration, either during the commission meeting or to Hutto prior to the meeting.
During Monday’s meeting, the residents will be allowed to submit names to the commissioner who they would like to see as general sessions judge during a public comment period.
After the public comment period has ended, the commission will go back into regular session and review the nominations received during the public comment period. At that time, commissioners will make their nominations for Gwin’s replacement. Though public comments will be accepted and considered, commissioners will make official nominations. A commissioner can nominate an individual recommended by residents, provided the nominated person agrees, in writing or during the meeting, to serve. A commissioner can, however, choose to nominate an individual who was not discussed during the public comment period, if the person agrees in writing or is present during the meeting. Should a commissioner nominate an individual not present at the meeting, the commissioner who makes the nomination must present a signed statement by the nominee that he or she is willing to serve should they be elected. There is no second required to the nomination.
After nominations end on the floor, those nominated will be given a chance to address the commission. Nominees will be asked to make a brief statement about themselves and why they seek the position. Only those nominated by a commissioner will be allowed to address the full commission. There will be no public comment period after nominations are submitted.
Commissioners will only be allowed to vote to fill the vacancy. Commissioners will use paper ballots to vote. It will take a majority vote of at least 13 votes on the first ballot to fill the vacancy. If there is a tie between two nominees, the nominee with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated, and a second vote will be taken. The process will continue until one nominee receives a majority of 13 votes from the commission.