There are two ways to become a judge: Get appointed or win an election.
These paths are wide and tree-lined for some; steep and rocky for others.
On Thursday, Aug. 4, Knox County voters will either re-elect General Sessions Court Division I Judge Charles A. “Chuck” Cerny Jr. or replace him with former prosecutor Sarah Keith. At stake is an eight-year term.
Keith probably would have run for Division II, where long-time Judge Geoff Emery was retiring, had Emery served out his term. But he retired early, enabling Knox County Commission to appoint a Republican, Judd Davis.
And that’s the dilemma for local Democratic lawyers. Tennessee has had a Republican governor for 10 years and is likely to have one for the next 20. Knox County Commission has had a Republican majority since Snyder’s hound was a pup. And, eight years ago, Knox County voters picked an unknown, inexperienced lawyer named Clarence Pridemore over Chancellor Daryl Fansler for no other reason than the “R” by Pridemore’s name.
So, here comes Sarah Keith. She gets high marks from her colleagues and has handled the campaign to date without slinging mud at Judge Cerny. But can she win?
“Voters can be more savvy than we give them credit for,” she says.
And she chose not to challenge Judd Davis because he’s a friend and a peer. “Judd and I have worked together (in the Attorney General’s office),” she said. “And I’m running for a position, not against somebody.” Keith’s website is here.
Keith’s campaign has suffered setbacks. Her father, longtime state Rep. Les Winningham, died on June 19, 2022, at age 81. Funeral services were held in Cookeville on June 24-25. Her campaign had planned “to knock on some doors” on Saturday, June 18, meeting up at Anchor Park.
She was forced to leave her job as assistant DA and open a private practice – a rule in the office of Attorney General Charme Allen if one opposes a sitting judge.
Cerny pushes mental health
Cerny is a likable fellow, somewhat innovative for a Republican judge. He has taken the lead on mental health issues and presides over the former Drug Court, now called the Recovery Court, and a similar court for veterans. He’s pushing for a third special court for defendants with mental health issues.
He’s quick to note that he receives no extra pay for this extra work. He hears his regular docket and each Wednesday afternoon meets with participants in the special courts, often until the dinner hour.
Why is he the only judge to have an opponent?
“I don’t know. (Sarah Keith and I) have always been on friendly terms.”
Although he’s been on the bench for 24 years, Cerny is not well-known. He’s had neither scandal nor an opponent until now.
Cerny said former Judge Richard Baumgartner often asked him to sub in the Drug Court, and after Baumgartner resigned, the other Criminal Court judges requested that he continue it.
“They asked me to service. I’m keeping a program going that is beneficial,” he says. Giving first-time drug offenders a chance to avoid jail by obtaining treatment and reporting back to the judge weekly, he says, makes for a safer community, saves tax dollars and helps individual people get better.
Campaigning is tough. Cerny says he has a hard time “telling people how great I am.” He would prefer to “just be quietly good at my job.”
But campaigning he is. Yard signs are going up and Cerny is making the rounds of Republican clubs. He recently marked his 30th anniversary with wife Kim with a fundraiser. They have adult children – a son and a daughter – and three grandchildren. His campaign website is here.
Keith makes her case
Keith advocates for recovery, veterans and mental health courts, saying she would “build on existing programs and expand them.”
She says a system is better when there is dissent. “It’s patriotic.” Reasonable minds can differ on issues, she says, and the system needs viable candidates from both parties. “The courts need judges who treat people like people and follow the law.
“I would be a good judge. I don’t back away from something just because it’s hard.”
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.