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Judge Vanessa Jackson’s gavel calls to order the courtroom in the Coffee County Courthouse. Next year the building will be 150 years old.

Local attorneys Robert Carter, William Lockhart and Edward H. North were selected as the finalists for circuit court judge following a day-long hearing. It is now up to Gov. Bill Lee to choose which of the three will get the appointment.

The Trial Court Vacancy Commission held the extended public hearing and interview session at the Coffee County Administrative Plaza Friday, May 14, to choose three candidates to initiate the process of filling the vacancy for a circuit court judge in the 14th Judicial District, which covers Coffee County. The opening was created by the retirement of the honorable L. Craig Johnson. The veteran judge’s retirement went into effect May 12.

Johnson announced his retirement in February after serving for 24 years on the bench. He said he plans on returning to private practice upon his retirement. He was last reelected in 2014, meaning whoever is appointed to the bench will be up for election during the 2022 elections, since judges serve eight-year terms in Tennessee.

The commission opened the public hearing by having the applicants, Carter, Jason Huskey, Margaret C. Lamb Kilgore, Lockhart, North and Felicia B. Walkup, give a brief introduction about themselves and why they believe they qualify to fill the vacant seat.

Once the introductions concluded, the commission then gave attendees a chance to speak, though no one came forward.

One by one, each applicant approached the podium and were interviewed and answered questions by the commission on myriad topics. One commissioner was assigned at random to lead the majority of the interview. Each commissioner was then given a chance to ask additional questions of the applicants.

The topics of the questions included each applicant’s career backgrounds, the unspoken rules of their courtroom, how they would get the court back on track with dockets and their extracurricular activities outside the courtroom.

One of the main questions presented to all applicants was their view on using technology like Zoom for court proceedings. The majority of the attorneys stated while they prefer to have in-person courtrooms they were amenable with using technology like Zoom for quick processes such as arraignments, plea agreements and docket scheduling.

The last question each attorney was asked was why they are the best candidate to be selected.

Carter said, given his own life experience with substance abuse, he has paid his dues and it has humanized him where he can relate to others and help them.

Huskey said along with his experience, his patience, respect and being a people person are the qualities that would make him a good judge.

Kilgore stated given her time as a public defender and working in recovery court, she would be a fair judge and empathize with people in the court system as human beings.

Lockhart said while he cannot control his age, he has the experience, which makes up for his youth.

North said his experience in a variety of fields of law make him a well-balanced candidate if selected.

Walkup stated she has the experience to sit on the bench and wants to be a matter-of-fact judge. 

After the interviews were finished, the nine members of the commission immediately cast their first votes for the three names they would submit for recommendation to Gov. Bill Lee.

The Trial Court Vacancy Commission selected Carter, Lockhart and North as their recommendations for Lee’s consideration to be the next circuit court judge in the district.