Presiding judge on state Court of Criminal Appeals makes history
Camille Reese McMullen says she has weathered tough times as a judge on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, but it has finally paid off – she’s just been elected unanimously as the presiding judge to lead the 12-member body as the first woman and African American to hold the position.
McMullen, who lives in Memphis, was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2008. She recalled Thursday in a phone interview that when asked by Bredesen’s staff how she planned to get other judges to work with her and respect her, she said it didn’t dawn on her that she would be challenged in any way.
“Do your work and everything else will come,” she said.
That didn’t happen, she added.
“The first time I stepped into my office, I saw boxes and boxes (of cases) before I got a phone,” she said. She later learned that she had been given 20% more cases (and some of the worst) than other judges. Some of her colleagues on the court told her that later, she said.
Then when she would send cases to other judges to comment on, they were slow to respond, which in turned slowed the process down, she said. Eventually the judges worked with her more as a team member, but it took time, she said.
Based on her experience, “I tell young lawyers at first they can expect not to be embraced. They will be tested,” she said.
Today she feels she and other Court of Criminal Appeals judges learn from each other. “I have not seen political influence in decisions. Some may decide more broadly or narrowly at times. We do apply the law as written,” she said.
McMullen, 52, succeeds Judge Curwood Witt of Knoxville as presiding judge. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law and serves on its Alumni Council. She said she will be in Knoxville in March when she speaks at the UT College of Law Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reviews appeals as of from the entry of judgment of conviction from trial courts across the state of Tennessee and handles about 800 cases per year. The presiding judge is tasked with managing the court’s docket, case assignments, meetings, committees and overall leadership.
“The role of this court in the criminal justice system is incredibly important. The Tennessee Supreme Court only accepts about 3 percent of cases that are appealed, therefore, as a practical matter, we are the court of last resort for 97 percent of criminal cases across the state. The issues we decide are serious and have a direct impact on so many lives,” McMullen said in a news release.
McMullen has a degree in political science from Austin Peay State University in addition to her law degree from UT. Her first job after graduating from law school was working as a law clerk for Judge Joe G. Riley Jr. of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the same court she now leads. After her clerkship, she focused her career on criminal law. She became an assistant district attorney in Shelby County in the major felony unit and then joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Shortly thereafter, Riley encouraged McMullen to apply for a Court of Criminal Appeals vacancy created by the retirement of Judge David Hayes. When Bredesen appointed McMullen to the Court of Criminal Appeals, she was one of the youngest appellate judges to take the bench in Tennessee.
In the official news release from the administrative office of the Tennessee courts, she answered a question about the impact of being the only Black woman on the court this way, “Our society is diverse. I think our court system should reflect the people that it serves. What I’ve learned, especially by being on a statewide court, is diversity comes in a lot of different forms. I’ve learned as much from my rural colleagues as my urban colleagues. The jewel of diversity is that the more differing perspectives that we have, the better the result. I truly believe in that concept.”
Mullen and her husband, Bruce, have two children, a college junior and a high school senior.
Jeanie Diden, base clinical lead-flight nurse for UT Lifestar, was appointed along with Jeffrey Bagwell, public information officer, Rural Metro Fire Department; Steve Hamby, emergency response coordinator, Knox County Health Department; and David Blevins, director of Roane State Community College’s emergency medical program.
Other East Tennesseans appointed:
Tom Griscom, retired editor and publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and long associated with the late U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., reappointed to the Public Charter School Commission for a five-year term, subject to legislative confirmation. He has served as chairman for a three-year term and cannot continue under the commission’s bylaws, he said.
Tony Treadway of Johnson City, president and CEO of the Creative Energy Group Inc., appointed to the East Tennessee State University Board of Trustees, subject to legislative confirmation.
Krissi McInturff, a Washington County elementary school teacher who was named the county’s 2014-15 Teacher of the Year, appointed to represent the 1st Congressional District on the Tennessee State Board of Education. This is subject to legislative confirmation.
∎ ENDORSEMENT TIME: Two incumbents and a political newcomer received endorsements from the East Tennessee Realtors, a 6,000-member trade association, in the Aug. 29 Knoxville city primary.
Winning endorsements were Mayor Indya Kincannon, who faces three opponents on the ballot; Lynne Fugate, who represents City Council at-large Seat A, running against realtor Cameron Brooks; and Tim Hill, a developer who is seeking the Council at-large Seat C post.
The announcement said the association’s board of directors made its decisions after considering the candidates’ positions on issues that included housing affordability, property rights and economic development. Each endorsed candidate received $5,000 from the association’s political action committee
Kincannon’s opponents are activist Constance Every, businessman R.C. Lawhorn and mortgage lender Jeff Talman. The Knox County Election Commission eliminated small businessman Burak Er on Thursday since he doesn’t meet city residency requirements.
Hill is running against incumbent Amelia Parker and Matthew Best, Change Center executive director.
Fugate, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians, also received a endorsement for reelection from Kincannon on June 29, after the mayor earlier donated $250 to her campaign. The two at one time served together on the Knox County Board of Education. In a statement, Kincannon said Fugate “gets things done.”
Brooks received the endorsement of Carlene Malone, who served on City Council representing the 4th District from 1991-2001. “Cameron will bring energy and fresh ideas to Knoxville’s City Council. He is an excellent listener and will work hard every day for the people of Knoxville,” Malone said in an announcement.
All candidates in the Knoxville city elections have financial disclosures due on July 10. The final day to register to vote before the primary is July 31.
“George Hawkins came to Gatlinburg as a young man and scratched his way to a leadership role in a town that was not always welcoming to outsiders,” said Sevier County historian Carroll McMahan. “He was elected to the City Commission and served as Mayor. However, his biggest impact was made as director of special events. Some people thought George was crazy when he first suggested the midnight Fourth of July Parade, but his diligent efforts garnered the support necessary to make it a reality. Thirty-seven years later, the parade is one of Gatlinburg’s foremost events. George’s out-going personality and networking skills served him well. His legacy will live on in Gatlinburg for generations to come.”
Hawkins graduated from Science Hill High School in Johnson City before moving to Gatlinburg. He served on the City Commission from 1976 to 2000, during which time he was chosen by the commission to be mayor. Afterward, he was the city’s special events coordinator.
McMahan said Hawkins was scheduled to ride a special float in this year’s Fourth of July Parade in recognition of his support through the years. With his death coming two days earlier, he was recognized posthumously.
A funeral service will be held at 4 p.m. July 9 at Gatlinburg First United Methodist Church, following receiving of friends from 2:30-4 p.m.
Georgiana Vines is retired News Sentinel associate editor. She may be reached at email@example.com.