Knoxville municipal judge race pits tradition against transformation
As the candidates for municipal judge in Knoxville head toward a Nov. 7 runoff election, issues of politics in a nonpartisan election, and the operations of the court, are at stake.
Judge John. R. Rosson, the incumbent, remains committed to the role he’s been in since 1986. This week, he was endorsed by the Knox County Republican Party.
His opponent, Tyler Caviness, who runs his own law firm and used to work in the public defender’s office, said the court’s community impact can be revitalized.
“We can start court on time,” he said. “I don’t think we can consistently brag about staying on schedule in city court.” It matters, he said, because “these are folks who are taking time away from work or families to be in your courtroom. And you can show them respect very easily by just being there when they get there.”
Municipal courts arguably have the smallest stakes - the judge in Knoxville can fine people $50, plus court costs, for traffic violations, parking ticket appeals, and other violations of city ordinances.
“For many people, this is probably the only court they’re ever going to find themselves in,” Caviness said in an interview. “So this court has much more direct community involvement and community contact. Most people don’t bring lawyers with them.”
Caviness said his experience as a defense lawyer prepared him to help people navigate the justice system.
“It gives you insight into the ground level issues really impacting people. It can be easy as a judge or lawyer to forget what it’s like for people who aren’t in the courtroom all the time.”
While Rosson began his campaign with the advantages of an incumbent, Caviness found a receptive public when he campaigned over the summer. He talked to people about why he believes the current court needs change.
Apart from punctuality, he cited the website as a crucial resource for the public. The Knox County Criminal Court recently announced a website overhaul intended to help residents navigate the stresses of going to court. Caviness said the municipal court should do the same.
“That’s listening to the public,” he said. These are easy things to [implement] that are not going to be time or resource intensive changes for the city court, but will benefit people.”
As Rosson seeks his 10th term, he’s drawing on his years of experience and enjoyment of the job as the foundations for his campaign.
‘I think experience is a very good thing to have if you’re going to be doing this,” Rosson said. “Life experience and judicial experience, I think, are important.”
“I enjoy listening to people’s stories. For example, they could have paid their ticket online, they could have gone to the window and paid it, they could have mailed the check," he continued. "The fact that they're in court tells me that they have a story to tell and it's my job to listen to that story.”
Rosson accepted the Knox County Republicans’ endorsement this week, despite the nonpartisan nature of the election.
“I agree to a point that it shouldn’t be political,” Rosson said. “But I happily accept the endorsement - I would take anyone’s endorsement. Whether somebody has a Republican on their resume, or Democrat, is totally irrelevant to me.”
Rosson has previously come under scrutiny for appearances at political events.
“I go to [events] for both sides,” he said. “There are no nonpartisan dinners,” he joked. “This has nothing to do with national politics.”
Caviness said he’s concerned about a pattern of politicizing the city court race.
“I think that it's really important that we keep politics out of the judiciary,” Caviness said. “I mean, we see what's happening on a national scale, we see how partisanship in the judiciary really undermines the integrity of the justice system.”
The final day for voter registration for the Knox County election is Oct. 10, early voting begins on Oct. 18, and election day is Nov. 7.
(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)