Every year since 1989, the Nashville Scene has awarded the title of Nashvillian of the Year to the person (or persons) who we feel made the most significant impact on the city during the previous 12 months. Sometimes the recipient is a longtime social activist or agent for civic good (Father Charles Strobel of Room at the Inn, the Rev. Becca Stevens of Magdalene House); on rare occasions — once — it could be the entire city rising to a challenge like the floods of May 2010.
Other times, though, the choice may simply be the person whose actions influenced one of the biggest stories of the year, and reverberated far beyond the city limits. That is the case with the Scene's 2011 Nashvillian of the Year: Thomas Nelson, the magistrate who presides over Metro Night Court — a man whose name was unknown to most Nashvillians before the wee hours of Oct. 29.
In the damp, chilly early-morning hours, a ragged group of about 30 people mingled around the downtown Metro Courthouse as fog rolled in off the Cumberland. For a second night, Tennessee state troopers, enforcing a hastily devised overnight curfew, had arrested more than 24 peaceful protesters with the group Occupy Nashville, who had been occupying the plaza beneath the Capitol for weeks.
Also swept up in the dragnet this night was Scene reporter Jonathan Meador, there covering the events on the plaza, as well as MTSU student journalist Malina Chavez-Shannon, recording the scene for class. As Safety Department commissioner Bill Gibbons would note later, in a statement that would typify the Haslam administration's handling of the protest, they were all dressed alike.
Among some in the group gathered outside the courthouse, where the halos of fog around the streetlights thickened as the night went on, there was speculation that the state might forego their request for arrest warrants and issue citations. Word was the state hoped to avoid the judge who had denied their warrants the night before.
As the moment neared for the hearing, the robed man in question, bald and bespectacled, emerged in the hallway outside Night Court. A legal observer asked him if he thought the troopers were trying to avoid his courtroom.
"I should like to think they are," Magistrate Tom Nelson said gruffly.
He disappeared inside his chambers. The small group who'd heard him looked at each other with wide eyes.
As it turned out, the troopers did go for full arrests, requesting warrants for all 26 in custody. Just after 2 a.m., the sparse room that serves as the night court filled to capacity with protesters and reporters eager to hear the decision. As a lone trooper presented him with the request, Judge Nelson sat at his elevated "bench" — a cramped office, behind a large pane of glass, that more closely resembles a bulletproof pharmacist's counter than anything suggesting judicial authority. With cameras trained on the glass, the room fell silent as he turned toward the trooper and spoke, with more than a slight air of irritation in his voice.
"Well, during the few waking hours that I had before coming in tonight — more out of my own curiosity, as opposed to anticipating you coming back; I'd hoped you wouldn't come back, but nevertheless here you are — I have reviewed the regulations of the state of Tennessee," he said, "and I can find no authority anywhere for anyone to authorize a curfew anywhere on Legislative Plaza."
With that, he declared the warrants denied. He then ordered the immediate release of everyone arrested, before turning from the trooper like a parent who's told their child "no" for the last time. The seated protesters wiggled their fingers in the air, the now nationally recognized symbol of their approval.
The first round of arrests had been denied on the basis that the protesters had not been given enough time to comply with the curfew. But now Nelson had challenged the legitimacy of the whole policy, in effect rebuking the troopers and, ultimately, Gov. Bill Haslam for overstepping the bounds of the law. His assertion that the curfew and its enforcement were unlawful was bolstered two days later, when U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger granted a temporary restraining order barring further arrests.
Word of the bold act spread quickly, landing the name Tom Nelson in The New York Times and even across the pond in the U.K.'s Guardian. Members of Occupy Nashville's communications team say word of Nelson's decision traveled like a power surge along the Occupy Wall Street pipeline, from New York to Portland, Ore. At a time when the movement was meeting forceful, even violent resistance in other cities — Oakland, New York, Boston — Nelson's ruling would be seen as a galvanizing jolt of hope over the weeks to come.
But to legal observers, it had an entirely different significance in the moment. In a fluke with astronomical odds, a man on the lowest level of the judiciary, rarely asked to do more than churn the flotsam of the legal system, had a case with national repercussions fall under his purview. And defying the power of the state, he delivered a resounding defense of constitutional rights.
Outside the court, legal onlookers resembled basketball fans who had just seen a high-schooler slam-dunk on LeBron James. Shaking his head, one put the moment in context: "It's not every day you get to see a night court magistrate smack down the governor of Tennessee."
Although night court is perhaps best known as an after-hours spectacle, its enduring name is actually a misnomer. Since 1963, the Davidson County Night Court has been the only court in the state that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with five judicial commissioners, who are appointed by the court, presiding on rotating shifts.
The commissioners' primary responsibilities include conducting probable cause hearings to determine if a warrant should be issued and setting an appropriate bail bond. They also issue protection orders and determine probable cause for judicial committals from county psychiatric facilities.
It's not the type of intrigue that fuels John Grisham novels. But as the entryway into the criminal justice system, night court is necessary if the wheels of law enforcement are to turn on a constitutional basis. Simply put, if we didn't have night court, we'd have to invent it.
The night court remembered by generations of Davidson County residents and attorneys — unlike the version today, with its institutional glare and almost sci-fi air of detachment — was more like a derelict circus. Well into the morning hours, it provided a parade of riotous drunks, wheedling hookers and belligerent ne'er-do-wells for the entertainment of anyone who wanted to hang out and watch.
Some local attorneys say the introduction of a filtering policy (which cuts down on hearings for so-called "junk warrants" that clog up the court) and the glass barrier between the judge and the courtroom has made night court more antiseptic. But with every new arrest that powers the judicial treadmill, the court never quite loses its whiff of ammonia and rotgut.
"That's not to say it's still not a circus from time to time," says Nashville attorney David Raybin, who notes that many of the people passing through night court come intoxicated and with a posse. "But years ago, before they had the glass and everything, it was kind of a Wild West sort of thing. The judge would be up there and people would be hollering and screaming, and they'd have to summon the police. There were fights. It was really a free-for-all."
Another Nashville attorney, Rob McKinney, remembers the old night court as a favorite type of absurd theater among the local youth.
"Back in the day, college students would go down there and have a hoot," he says. "It was a unique form of entertainment."
Indeed, many spectators came to get a real-life performance of the 1980s sitcom Night Court — the one where card-sharp judge Harry Anderson presided over a never-clearing docket of loonies. But although things got increasingly zany in later seasons — one episode famously featured Wile E. Coyote as a defendant — the show was praised in its early years for its relatively realistic take on an odd but necessary sector of the judiciary. It's a judicial mixed bag — and for the past decade, Tom Nelson's been holding it.