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Judging the judge

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A local attorney is preparing to file a civil rights suit this week against Davidson County’s presiding General Sessions judge, claiming discrimination in her recent firing of a longtime probation officer.

The discrimination claim of former probation officer Cleveland Moreland, who is black, comes at a bad time for Judge Sue McKnight Evans, who is white. A YMCA night law-school graduate who got her degree later in life, Evans was elected last year to finish an unexpired term in General Sessions Court. Along with her other General Sessions colleagues, she faces voters in next year’s countywide elections.

Neither Evans nor Metro Legal Department attorneys are commenting on the case, but according to Moreland’s personnel file, Evans instructed the court’s director of probation, Les Mondelli, to dismiss Moreland on July 10. That was after Evans received a letter from the mother of a probationer, claiming that, when the probationer made comments a week earlier about wanting to commit suicide, Moreland’s advice to him had been something like, “There’s the window. Go ahead and jump.”

When the letter reached Evans, she instructed Mondelli to fire Moreland on the spot. Moreland denies making the statement, but his lawyer, Bob Lynch, says that, first of all, it would not have been an inappropriate statement for Moreland to make. Secondly, Lynch says, Moreland deserved a hearing. As it was, Evans never even approached the probation officer about his alleged comment.

What’s more, Lynch says, General Sessions Court employment policy dictates that the judges as a group must make the decision about the hiring or firing of a probation officer. As Lynch sees it, such decisions are not simply left up to the judge for whom the officer works. “They’ve literally created a civil service structure” for probation officers, he says.

Lynch, the talented, scrappy lawyer who successfully prosecuted former Gov. Ray Blanton, is preparing to file the suit in state court this week, claiming Moreland’s firing was both improper and discriminatory.

The incident may seem like just another Metro Courthouse personnel matter, but it has attracted an unusual amount of attention in Courthouse circles. For one thing, the incident has divided Evans’ colleagues on the General Sessions Court bench. While they’re reluctant to talk on the record, some of the judges are coming down on Evans’ side, while others have gone so far as to encourage Moreland to file suit.

Allies of Evans point to an August 1995 memorandum from former Judge Gale Robinson saying probation officers “serve at the pleasure of each judge,” who can “individually hire and fire their own probation officers.” But Lynch points to minutes of a judicial meeting this year, at which judges passed a motion that probation officers and other specified court workers be selected by all the judges as a group.

Other Evans allies say she had taken Moreland aside three separate times to reprimand him for not getting reports in on time. Moreland, however, denies that, and his personnel file contains no record of reprimands during his eight years in county courts. “I looked in his file, and there’s nothing in there,” court administrator Warner Hassell says.

Lynch says he intends to show that Evans made it a practice to ostracize Moreland and that, during her time on the bench, she has ignored him and pushed him aside. “She would ask about my cases to another [white] probation officer,” Moreland himself says, even though he had known Evans for years, while she was still a practicing attorney. Moreland, who was earning about $39,000 a year, said the firing was a surprise because he and Evans “never had a negative word to one another.”

Although Evans hired a black woman to replace Moreland, Lynch is convinced the case has overtones of race and gender discrimination. “Here’s a black professional man doing very, very well, and here’s an older white woman who comes out and fires him,” Lynch says. “Is that the proper conduct of a public official toward a minority?”

Moreland has worked as a probation officer at the state and federal levels and has earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. According to Lynch, his client is exactly the kind of worker civil-rights statutes were written to protect.

“This is not about crack dealers being hit over the head by police,” Lynch says. “This is about a good, honorable person getting hit by a Mack truck.”

When only one side is talking, it’s hard to get to the truth. But in Moreland’s case, the paper trail at least seems to point in his favor. And that means the outlook isn’t good for Evans. Elections for her and her colleagues are less than a year away. Any judicial misstep is likely to get publicity and to encourage a challenger to seize the moment.

You divide; he’ll conquer

New allegations of marital infidelities are surrounding state Rep. Bill Boner, and political watchers are predicting that his personal life will scuttle Boner’s chances in next year’s race for Davidson County Register of Deeds.

But in that race, things are actually going pretty well for Boner. At least a half-dozen people are either already in the race or considering a campaign. In addition to Boner, Bill Garrett Jr., son of former Metro Trustee Bill Garrett, has expressed interest, as has Lady Jackson, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Meanwhile, one Parker Toler is already handing out fingernail files with his name on them, and a few former Metro Council members have joined the mix.

The more candidates there are, the better Boner will fare. Let’s face it: Boner’s like ivy. He gets around quickly, and he doesn’t go away just because you want him to.

To reach Liz, call her at 615-244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at liz@mail.nashscene.com.

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