by Alexis Marshall and Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica
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Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee
Where Kids Meet the Rule of Law
Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile court judge at the center of a controversy over the arrest and detention of children in Rutherford County, Tennessee, has announced that she will step down this year rather than run for reelection.
Earlier on Tuesday, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio published a story about a move by some Tennessee lawmakers to remove Davenport from her post. About an hour after that story was published on ProPublica’s website, Davenport, in an email sent by the county’s spokesperson, announced that she will not be running for reelection this year. Instead, she plans to retire when her current eight-year term expires this summer.
Davenport, in announcing her retirement, said: “After prayerful thought and talking with my family, I have decided not to run for re-election after serving more than twenty-two years on the bench. I will always look back at my time as Judge as one of the greatest honors of my life and I am so proud of what this Court has accomplished in the last two decades and how it has positively affected the lives of young people and families in Rutherford County. I wish my successor the best and hope that this job provides them the same fulfillment it has provided me over the years.”
A bill that was introduced in the Tennessee legislature sought to remove Davenport, following reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica detailing how the county’s justice system was illegally arresting and jailing children.
Since 2000, Davenport has overseen the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, where the county jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court — compared with the statewide average of 5%. State Sen. Heidi Campbell and state Rep. Gloria Johnson have said they are proposing legislation that could result in Davenport’s ouster. A bill starting the process was filed in the state Senate on Friday.
In Tennessee, state lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when children can be locked up prior to a delinquency hearing. But from 2008 to 2017, Rutherford County’s juvenile jail instituted its own system, called a “filter system,” under which any child deemed a “TRUE threat” could be detained. The jail’s written procedures never defined what a “TRUE threat” was. Davenport appointed the jail’s director, who also reports to her. In 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to put a stop to the filter system’s use.
“While judges are given judicial discretion to interpret laws, they are not allowed to make up their own laws,” Campbell said in a press conference on Monday.
State Rep. Vincent Dixie said at the press conference: “This is a slap in the face to us as legislators, because she made a policy into a law. And if you can do that, if anybody can do that, then why are we even in office?”
State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, former chair of Tennessee’s Black Caucus, highlighted the racial disparities among incarcerated children in Rutherford County during the press conference. Reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica found that Black children are not only jailed at a disproportionately high rate, but that the disparity is getting worse.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Gilmore, said they’re concerned that the issues in the county are systemic.
“The people who are in charge have failed the children, and they’re still in charge,” Gilmore said.
Johnson said Davenport exercised an “appalling abuse of power.” She added, “How can we keep a judge in place who sees herself as carrying out God’s mission, rather than carrying out the laws of this state?”
The attempted ouster is considered an extreme measure.
Under Tennessee’s constitution, a judge can be removed only upon a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers. A state report and news clips turn up only two instances of that happening in the last half century — once for a judge convicted of sexual assault, and once for a judge convicted of perjury and obstructing justice.
Campbell said if the resolution passes, a joint legislative committee would be formed with the power to subpoena witnesses. It would file a report to the state House and Senate, which would then vote separately on whether to remove the judge.
Voters selected Davenport as Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge after the county established it as an elected position in 2000; she has been the only person to hold the job thus far. In her last reelection bid, in 2014, she ran as a Republican.
Multiple Democratic lawmakers said Davenport’s removal isn’t a partisan issue. Campbell pointed to how Tennessee’s Republican governor has called for a review of Davenport. Eleven members of Congress, all Democrats, have also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation of the county’s juvenile justice system.
In Tennessee, a similar measure to remove a judge was introduced last year by a Republican representative. The judge had ordered increased access to absentee ballots during the August primary elections. The effort to oust her failed, but the judge has since announced she will not seek reelection.
Nashville Public Radio reached out to Davenport for comment about the legislative proposal to remove her but did not receive a response. She has previously declined to respond to questions from the news organizations.