Primary 2020: Criminal Court Judge, Division II
Appointed Judge Kyle Hixson and attorney Wesley Stone square off in a contest they agree typically hinges on experience and fairness.
When Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee retired abruptly last year, Gov. Bill Lee appointed longtime prosecutor Kyle Hixson to fill the Division II seat until this year’s election. Hixson is running in the March 3 Republican primary against attorney Wesley Stone, with the winner assured of victory in the August general election since no Democrat is running.
Hixson's background is as a prosecutor, while Stone has spent most of his career as a defense attorney.
Judicial races are odd political creatures. Candidates for trial judge seats can’t promise a new school in a particular district or pledge not to raise taxes or any of the typical campaign promises made by politicians. They also can’t directly ask for contributions.
Unlike appellate court judges, who enjoy some leeway in bringing their judicial philosophies to bear on cases, trial judges must apply the law as written, taking precedents into account and following procedural rules.
Instead of policy, the races tend to turn on experience, temperament and other factors, including political connections and support from the legal community.
Hixson and Stone both are seasoned lawyers who moved to Knoxville after growing up in small East Tennessee towns. Hixson now has some experience on the bench, but he only took office on Jan. 1, so his record thus far is limited. Stone has been a defense attorney with extensive appellate experience.
Hixson: The Prosecutor
Hixson grew up in Crossville and worked as a youngster in the family store in the Pumpkin Center community. After graduating from Cumberland County High School in 2001, he attended the University of Tennessee to study broadcasting — he was John Wilkerson’s sidekick for UT baseball for the Vol Network — and then went to the UT College of Law after graduation.
“It hit me one day — I want to be a lawyer and work in a trial court. Trial court is fascinating to me,” he said.
Hixson interned with the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, and former D.A. Randy Nichols hired him after he graduated sixth in his law school class of 149. He specialized in prosecuting child abuse cases and worked closely with current D.A. Charme Allen.
In 2012, Hixson went to work in the state Attorney General’s Office, where he worked appellate cases and pushed for tougher penalties for child abusers, helped with public corruption cases, and represented attorneys general and judges in civil proceedings. Along the way, he also gained insight into criminal trials by deconstructing them.
“When you have a case on appeal, it’s basically a post-mortem of what happened in the trial court,” Hixson said. “You can see what went right with a trial and what went wrong with a trial.”
Hixson returned to the Knox County D.A.’s Office, where he worked until Lee appointed him to the bench late last year. He named two qualities needed in a trial judge — experience and fairness.
“No. 1 is experience, someone who has experience trying cases in front and juries and also cases on appeal,” he said, adding, “Judges must have an innate sense of fairness.”
Hixson is a former president of the West Knox Republican Club and has numerous GOP elected officials on his campaign committee. He also claims support from the defense bar. “When you go to battle with someone,” he said, “ you know how they will react under pressure.”
Stone: Defense Counsel
Stone grew up on a 400-acre farm in New Tazewell, where his family raised cattle and grew hay and tobacco. His father and grandfather steered him into cantaloupes as a teenager. “I peddled them through town.”
Stone’s father also was an attorney, which had a powerful impact on his life. “People would say, ‘Your dad really helped me.’ Over time, you can see how attorneys can affect people’s lives,” he said.
Stone wanted to be a farmer/lawyer like his father. He got a degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee and earned his law degree, with honors, from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2003. For six years, he practiced law with his father in Claiborne County.
Stone has spent nearly two decades in private practice as a civil and criminal defense lawyer, and now is an attorney with Hodges, Doughty & Carson in Knoxville. In addition to trial experience that includes 14 first-degree murder cases, he has handled at least 30 criminal appeals.
Though he’s spent most of his career in private practice, Stone interned with the district attorney general in Bessemer, Ala., and worked as a prosecutor in Tennessee’s 8th Judicial District, which includes Claiborne County.
“It’s important for fairness for a judge to have experience on both sides,” he said. “Understanding the role of a prosecutor is the most important thing you can take away from that.”
Like Hixson, Stone emphasizes fairness. In addition to defending the accused, he has been active as a victim’s advocate. “You start with this premise: Our courts are designed that both parties have their right to due process. I’ve spent my career ensuring my clients have that right,” he said.
Stone said he’s a stickler for the rules. “When people go to court, they need to know that the rules will be applied fairly,” he said. “There will be no special treatment of those accused of crimes. The public deserves a judge that follows the law.”
Early voting in the primary begins Feb. 12, and primary Election Day is March 3.