Judge explains illness-related absences, won't withdraw from race
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- A Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge earns about $156,000 annually.
But since March, when County Commissioners appointed longtime Special Judge and attorney David Norton to fill the bench vacated when Judge Bob Moon died of a heart attack, Norton has been absent more than a third of the time.
Friday, Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis was the Special Judge handling his cases.
Judge Norton cites an "inherited, non-life threatening neurological illness" as the cause.
"It's not debilitating to the point that I can't function," Judge Norton tells Channel 3 in a telephone interview from North Carolina, where he is resting with family.
"It's more my appearance. And not being able to write sometimes, and that's not something that the public needs to see."
But attorney Stuart James questions whether Judge Norton has his priorities straight.
"I would commend him for recognizing that (his condition)," James says. "I just wish he'd gone a step further and told the people to vote for someone else."
Norton is one of seven candidates vying for Judge Moon's old court seat on the August 2 ballot.
On his campaign web site, Judge Norton tells voters that the tests, treatment and recovery are expected to take longer than he'd hoped, but that he's not withdrawing from the race even if he's unable to return to work September 1, when the winner would take the bench.
"It would not be fair to those who supported me and who worked to get me elected," he tells Channel 3. "The people are going to vote for whomever they're going to vote for."
But attorney Robin Flores questions whether Norton's announcement Thursday is fair to those who cast ballots in early voting.
"If I'd known about it sooner," Flores says, "it probably would have swayed my vote another way."
"The condition was disclosed long before early voting," Norton responds. "And any comments to another effect would be inaccurate."
But James believes that cuts both ways.
"This guy can put people in jail," he says. Hold bond hearings, decide who gets fined what in a civil case, and he's telling voters 'I can't do my job?'"
James says the concerns haven't reached the level to call for an investigation from the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary or its Board of Judicial Conduct.
But some questions of the Judicial Code could come to bear.
Canon 3 requires judges to dispose of matters "promptly, efficiently and fairly' and to "devote adequate time to their duties, be punctual in court, and expeditious in determining matters under submission."
"I have apprised my fellow Judges of my condition, and we have managed the Court's business," Judge Norton responds.
"It is my intention, if I am able, to return to the bench. If I find that there is a point, if I am to be elected, that I cannot serve, I will resign. It's not fair to the public otherwise."
Should Judge Norton be elected, but choose to resign, Hamilton County Commissioners would appoint his replacement, as they did when the seat became vacant upon Judge Moon's death.
James maintains that such actions would do voters a disservice.
"He should really say 'look, I can't do the job, you need to find another candidate to vote for," James says. "If you let the politicos appoint somebody, it bypasses the voters' right to choose who they want as a Judge."