Tennessee lawmakers push to remove Rutherford County juvenile judge over jailing of children

·4 min read

Tennessee lawmakers want to oust the Rutherford County judge tied to the area's decades-long history of illegally arresting and jailing children.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, on Monday morning announced a joint resolution intended to remove embattled Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport.

Davenport has been at the center of a national controversy over the way the county handled minor — if not made-up — juvenile charges.

"While judges are given judicial discretion to interpret laws they are not allowed to make up their own laws," Campbell said. "The constitutional provision for removing judges in our state is an extreme remedy, but it exists for a reason.

"What she's doing is illegal."

Campbell and Johnson were joined by fellow Democrats at a news conference Monday morning including Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

"Judge Davenport has violated state law and her oath of office," according to the resolution.

Davenport is up for reelection this year. She was elected in 2000 to the seat, the first and so far, only judge to hold the office.

In December, Rutherford County settled a related $6 million federal civil court case.

The case is related to other lawsuits that followed the illegal arrests and jailing of children in 2016 at Hobgood Elementary and other locations in Murfreesboro following an off-campus fight and bullying incident on neighborhood yards. Also in December, one student incarcerated for three days in 2016 filed a $15 million lawsuit against Davenport.

Donna Scott Davenport
Donna Scott Davenport

"She calls herself the mother of the county. I would question that title that she has," Gilmore said.

"I think it's time for us to take action and have this judge removed. Placing children, especially six-year-olds in handcuffs, is never the way to reform juveniles."

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw ordered a halt to illegal incarceration of children, focusing on Davenport and Juvenile Detention Center Director Lynn Duke in response to the Hobgood case.

"We didn't just arbitrarily get here today. We’ve done what we were supposed to do," Dixie said. "By her own admittance, she has broken the law. The way that we’re going in Tennessee, we’re taking steps backwards. We have failed our children.

"The system is broken."

Gilmore echoed his thoughts.

"The conditions that allowed this to happen still exist," she said.

Where are they now: Parents and police involved in Rutherford County's illegal arrests and incarceration of minors

Lawsuit: Child jailed 3 days after Hobgood Elementary arrests sues Judge Donna Scott Davenport

Mother of incarcerated 10-year-old speaks out: Police 'came to my house like my son was a fugitive'

If approved, the resolution would authorize the General Assembly to create a committee to consider removing Davenport from office. It was filed Friday.

Last year, a Republican lawmaker attempted to push through the ouster of retiring Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle after her ruling against the state in a voting rights case ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The effort, opposed widely by the judicial community, failed.

Tennessee Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, who chairs the House subcommittee on elections and campaign finance, led the effort against Lyle. He was not present at Monday's news conference.

Clemmons, who openly opposed the motion against Lyle, drew attention to the difference he sees between the two efforts.

"This isn't something new," he said. "It was obvious that things like that don't just happen, that this is evidence of a systemic problem and an ongoing problem. There are situations and circumstances that justify the actions that are being sought."

Campbell believes the push will have bipartisan support, she said Monday.

Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, asked the Board of Judicial Conduct in October to launch an investigation into Davenport's court.

"Those processes take a long time, and all of the time those investigations are going on, we will have a judge making decisions for children that has shown in the past she is not able to make decisions that are humane," Campbell said.

The General Assembly began its current session a week ago.

Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.

This article originally appeared on Murfreesboro Daily News Journal: Lawmakers push to remove Rutherford County judge over juvenile arrests