Primary 2020: County Law Director
As David Buuck faces off against Cathy Quist-Shanks in the Republican primary, the candidates define the office’s role differently.
by jesse fox mayshark • january 30, 2020
david buuck, left, is running against cathy quist-shanks for knox county law director.
Knox County’s elected law director is an anomaly. Almost all other counties in Tennessee — including the state’s three other large metropolitan counties — have attorneys hired by the mayor or County Commission.
In recent years, the Law Department has been involved in some high-profile disputes.
But Knox County’s elected position dates back to the 1960s and was incorporated into the county’s home-rule charter when it was enacted in 1990. The law director oversees the county Law Department, which provides legal services to all branches of county government: the mayor’s office, County Commission, the school board and the various elected fee offices.
Since 2012, the office has been held by Bud Armstrong, a former county commissioner who earned a law degree late in his career and had been licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee for just three years when he ran for the office.
Armstrong has taken an assertive approach to the position, facing off with the school board over an extension to former Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s contract, filing a lawsuit against the county’s Retirement & Pension Board over its calculation of benefits for Sheriff’s Office retirees, and raising repeated concerns over County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ proposal to lease the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower.
In each case, Armstrong has said he’s just following the law and protecting taxpayers’ interests. Those on the other side of the issues from him have often suggested he is pursuing his own political agenda. (The appearance of politicization is bolstered by Armstrong’s close ties with Knoxville Focus publisher and Republican power broker Steve Hunley, who has editorially supported the law director’s positions on contentious issues.)
With Armstrong term-limited this year, two candidates for the office are facing off in the March 3 Republican primary: David Buuck, who is Armstrong’s chief deputy law director, and Cathy Quist-Shanks, who was Circuit Court clerk for 20 years and worked as an attorney in the county Law Department before that.
Buuck has been Armstrong’s right-hand man during the law director’s entire time in office, so the primary is inevitably something of a referendum on Armstrong’s tenure and approach.
Quist-Shanks says she wants to rebuild trust and relationships that have suffered during the past eight years. Buuck says the department already has great relationships with its assorted clients and there’s nothing to rebuild.
The two also have different ideas about the scope of the department’s mandate and the benefits of hiring outside lawyers in specific cases.
Buuck, who is 72, has been in legal practice for 40 years, doing both private and public sector work. After earning a law degree from the University of Tennessee, he started with former Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s law firm in downtown Knoxville.
He did a lot of contract and tax work for local businesses, and he got involved in government law when he helped the town of Louisville in Blount County incorporate in 1990. After that, he served as the town’s attorney on an as-needed basis.
He also became a specialist in property rights law, working with the group Citizens for Home Rule to represent property owners who were fighting annexation by the City of Knoxville during former Mayor Victor Ashe’s tenure. “There were 240 lawsuits filed over a 15-year period,” Buuck said. “Ultimately, we prevailed on every one of them.” (Lingering cases were dismissed when the state annexation law changed in 2014.)
He likewise won a victory for community groups opposed to the development of Midway Business Park in East Knox County, when a judge overturned a rezoning of the property in 2008. The property was eventually rezoned via a compromise forged by former County Mayor Tim Burchett.
Buuck applied for appointment as law director in 2010, when County Commission had to fill the remainder of the term of former Law Director Bill Lockett, who resigned after pleading guilty to embezzlement charges. But despite the vocal support of Hunley, Buuck lost out on the appointment to Joe Jarret, who had served as Lockett’s deputy.
When Armstrong subsequently defeated Jarret in the 2012 election, Buuck was his first hire. Buuck said his experience both suing and defending local governments gives him valuable perspective.
“I know what the arguments are on the other side,” he said. “I had been in court on them and and I’ve been before County Commission and City Council on them. So the lawyers that are attacking the county now, I know where they’re coming from.”
Even working on the inside now, Buuck said he maintains a sense that government needs legal checks and balances.
“This is a political philosophy of mine,” he said. “The government will take whatever they feel they can get away with.”
Quist-Shanks, who is 60, grew up in Oak Ridge and received both her bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of Tennessee. She worked as a deputy law director in the county Law Department for seven years during the 1990s, primarily assigned to represent the school system.
“I sat with the board for all of their night meetings and their school disciplinary matters,” she said. “I defended them when they were sued, I gave them prospective advice when they were drafting their policies.”
In 1998, Quist-Shanks took on a big fight, running for Circuit Court Clerk against longtime incumbent Lillian Bean, who with her husband, Richard, ran a Republican Party faction known colloquially as “the Bean Machine.”
The size and power of that operation were always in dispute, but in any case Quist-Shanks effectively put an end to it, winning 60 percent of the vote over Bean in the Republican primary. The support of then-Sheriff Tim Hutchison was widely viewed as crucial to Quist-Shanks’ victory.
The Circuit Court Clerk’s office is not subject to the county’s term limits, and Quist-Shanks won five four-year terms before deciding not to run again in 2018. The office handles documents and collects fees for the county’s circuit, civil sessions and juvenile courts.
During her time there, Quist-Shanks said, she pushed to modernize the office’s systems and improve records access for the general public.
“We had one division that had no computers, no computer program at all,” she said. “Civil Sessions had to be computerized from scratch, and it wasn’t budgeted. There was a lot of work to be done.”
It wasn’t without its rocky patches. In her early years, she had to deal with controversies over undeposited payments and a transition of criminal court duties from her office to the county’s Criminal Court Clerk. Her last term brought a federal lawsuit from a longtime employee, Tim Wheeler, whom Quist-Shanks had fired.
She said she couldn’t discuss the Wheeler suit, which was settled in a sealed agreement after she left office. But she said overall her experience in the clerk’s office taught her to push against the tendency of large institutions to settle for the status quo.
“Fighting apathy in government is difficult, because it is a change-resistant organization,” Quist-Shanks said. “People tend to get there and become comfortable with their expertise. So you have to keep them inspired.”
Since leaving office, Quist-Shanks said she had been through training for certification as a mediator and done some legal consultation for private clients. Although she didn’t pick up a qualifying petition for the law director’s race until just before last month’s deadline, she said she had been contemplating it for months and talking to other lawyers.
“There had been discussions with other members of the bar about running, and if other friends were going to run, I wasn’t going to run,” she said.
She said what pushed her into the race were concerns about some of the current operations of the office under Armstrong — the high-profile disagreements with other officeholders, what she said is a perception that some cases are taking too long to settle or resolve, and a move away from hiring expert outside counsel in cases that need it.
She cited a lawsuit brought by a Knox County inmate, David Ray Nichols, over lack of medical treatment for a broken neck he suffered when he fell out of his bunk. A jury awarded Nichols $140,000, and the county chose to appeal. That appeal was rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to an award of additional lawyers’ fees that Quist-Shanks said would have been much lower had the county just paid the award.
“I’m a big believer in managing your caseload, managing your liability, looking at your risk,” she said. “It’s part of the strategy of a law practice. Clients oftentimes want to litigate and don’t want to settle. Sometimes settling is the most appropriate thing to do.”
On the use of outside counsel, she said she thought Armstrong had gone too far in reining it in, choosing to expand his in-house staff of lawyers rather than bringing in critical expertise from the private sector.
“How you look at your legal dollars to be spent is important, and sometimes spending it outside is better than spending it inside,” she said. “Because those individuals have trained themselves, they’re paying their own insurance, it’s like leased equipment. You don’t have them for the long term.”
Buuck strongly disagreed. He said that under past law directors, before Armstrong, the use of outside counsel was often a way to give a big paycheck to lawyer friends.
“I saw this over a period of at least 20 years, there were certain friends out there, it was a culture here,” Buuck said. “‘Let’s give them money,’ the golden goose, and nobody questioned the fees they were getting. They were outrageous.”
Although the office still uses outside counsel when needed, Buuck said, it has moved as much work as possible in-house — unless one of its clients demands otherwise. Probably not coincidentally, he mentions that Quist-Shanks requested outside counsel for her defense in the Wheeler case.
“That was a tough case, those were bad, bad facts, terrible facts,” Buuck said.
But he also said that weighing when and how to settle a case is a crucial part of the department’s work. Often, he said, it’s better to negotiate a settlement than risk a large jury award and lawyers’ fees.
In federal court, which unlike state court has no cap on government liability, Buuck said, “We can have a $5,000 damage (incident), that’s what it would max out at if you went to a jury, and wind up with a quarter-million dollar attorney’s fee.”
Quist-Shanks said she wants to rebuild relationships between the Law Department and the county offices it serves, which she believes have been strained by some of the conflicts of recent years.
“I feel strongly that we shouldn’t be where we’re at, with the lack of trust,” she said.
Buuck disputed that. He said that whatever disagreements have occurred have been in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
“We’ve got good relations with all departments, with Commission,” he said. “We’ve got good relations with the mayor.”
More broadly, Quist-Shanks said she thinks the department functions best when it keeps to its role as in-house counsel, rather than positioning itself as a standalone legal authority for the whole county.
“The Law Department is there to be the county’s attorney,” she said, “and defend the county entities, assist with the prospective policies — HR, operational policies — and to do it in such a way that the taxpayer is a third-party beneficiary.”
But Buuck said the office was always envisioned as more than just a county attorney. He said it was intended as a local corollary to the state attorney general’s office, which issues legal opinions and looks out for the overall interests of the public.
He said, “Ultimately what’s in mind always is that it’s actually these people out here, that live out here, that I’m representing their interests.”