Election 2022: Circuit Court Clerk
Republican incumbent Charlie Susano faces Democratic newcomer Dana Moran to lead an office responsible for keeping courts running.
by jesse fox mayshark • June 17, 2022
Dana Moran, left, is running against incumbent Charlie Susano.
The first thing to know about the elected office generally referred to as “Circuit Court Clerk” is that that isn’t its proper name. In line with its actual duties, the position is technically known as Clerk of the Circuit, Civil Sessions and Juvenile Courts.
One thing both candidates promise: technological upgrades to the office.
Even that is a little misleading, since the office oversees only civil Circuit Court matters, with criminal Circuit Court cases under the purview of the county’s Criminal Court Clerk.
But the “clerk” part of the title is accurate and descriptive — the office provides administrative support to the county’s civil and juvenile courts, ranging from collecting filing fees to maintaining voluminous case files.
“We manage it from start to finish so that when that case is heard, when that case is decided, when that case is mediated, and settled, and so forth, every piece of paper that is associated with that case is in a file, in its proper order,” said Republican incumbent Clerk Charlie Susano, who is seeking a second four-year term.
“It’s a supportive role,” said Dana Moran, the Democratic candidate challenging Susano for the position. “I would be supporting the judges and attorneys. I will also be making sure that the people have access to the resources they need.”
The office also staffs judicial proceedings with clerks taking minutes of courtroom action and providing judges with any documents they need. It employs about 52 people overall, with just over half of those assigned to Juvenile Court.
It is what is known as a “fee office,” meaning it pays for its operations out of fees it collects for its services — in this case, primarily filing fees on various legal documents. (The exception is the operation of Juvenile Court, which is not expected to be self-supporting and is paid for out of the county’s general budget.)
Clerical work does not easily lend itself to partisan politics, and while Susano and Moran have some differences in emphasis as they discuss the workings of the office, it is not exactly an ideological contest.
Instead, like some other positions on the Aug. 4 ballot for the county general election — Register of Deeds, Trustee — it pits a well-known Republican who has already won a countywide election against a politically unknown Democrat. In a county that typically leans about 60-40 Republican, that would seem to give the incumbent a significant edge.
As of the last financial disclosure at the end of April, Susano reported $19,923 in campaign funds on hand — a moderate amount by the standards of countywide races, but literally 100 times the $199.93 Moran reported.
Here’s a look at the two contenders.
Moran, who grew up in western New York state, has taken a somewhat circuitous route to her first political venture.
After high school, she moved west and after a few years enlisted in the U.S. Army. She served seven years in uniform, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan along with a year in South Korea.
“I’m a combat veteran,” said Moran, who is 44. “And then I got out of the military and I used my G.I. Bill (to go to college) with a focus on paralegal. I’ve been working in and out of the legal field ever since.” She is currently working for a temp service while running for office.
Moran moved to Knoxville in 2019 to be close to family — she has two sisters living here. Six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was really nice to be around family, especially going through something like that,” Moran said.
She encountered the Circuit Court clerk’s office while working as a paralegal for a downtown law firm. She said she thinks the office can do more to modernize its services.
“We do not have an e-filing system,” she said, referring to electronic filing of documents. “Having worked in other law offices in other places, I've worked with e-filing systems before, and I know how efficient they can be.”
She has pledged to create an advisory council for the office made up of local residents to provide feedback and make recommendations for improvements in service. She said she also wants to make sure the office reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
“I definitely feel like supporting the judges and the attorneys so that they can do their job efficiently and effectively is really important,” Moran said. “But on the flip side, making sure that the people have access is really important too, because the judicial system is complicated.”
She said she would rely on the expertise of the office’s existing staff, but would also “be shaking things up a little bit.”
“My goal is not to just go in and start firing people,” Moran said. “But we do want to maintain a culture of diversity.”
Although she has never run for office before, Moran has some political experience. She volunteered for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and also for Oregon state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Democrat.
Moran said her party affiliation stems from her political views, which she describes as “leaning progressive, for sure.” She said it is important to her to have the views and experiences of working-class people represented in local government.
“I just feel like my ideals kind of align with the younger, more progressive generation,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I’m young at heart.”
And while a court clerk’s office might not seem like the most obvious place to advance any kind of agenda, Moran said helping to ensure the smooth running of the justice system is crucial to the functioning of American democracy.
“Without a judicial system that has integrity and efficiency and transparency and diversity, the other two branches (of government) can’t function the right way,” she said. “That’s what we have checks and balances for.”
She recognizes the challenges of running against a well-known, well-financed Republican incumbent. But Moran said she’s not just running a symbolic campaign to fill a line on the ballot.
“We expect to win!” she said.
Like his father before him, Susano did not set out to hold political office.
Charles Susano Jr. was a well-known lawyer in Knoxville for about three decades before former Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him to the state Court of Appeals in 1994. He was reelected four times before retiring in 2020. He died last month, in a passing mourned by his family, fellow judges and attorneys, and state and local officials.
His son, Charlie, was not initially inclined toward a career in the justice system. After growing up in the Rocky Hill area and graduating from Knoxville Catholic High School, he earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Tennessee. That led to a career in archaeology, a field he loved.
But after working for several years on digs, often contracted by the state or the Tennessee Valley Authority to assess property targeted for infrastructure projects, he grew tired of the schedule.
“I always joke and say it’s a young person’s game,” said Susano, who is 52 and married with children. “I wasn’t going to teach, I wanted to be a practicing archaeologist. So that meant traveling a good bit.”
So when he had the opportunity to change paths and take a job in the more stable confines of the City County Building, he took it. He initially worked in the county Trustee’s Office as a delinquent collections administrator, working to set up payment plans for people who were behind on their property taxes and in danger of losing their homes.
“I enjoyed the back and forth with folks, really kind of getting them out of a bind,” he said. “It was a good thing to see the taxes get paid, see those properties remain on the tax rolls.”
When former Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist Shanks announced she wasn’t seeking reelection in 2018, it opened the door for Susano.
“I was not a political animal,” he said. “I see a bunch of counters, and a bunch of people standing at those counters that need something, and our job is to provide for that, whatever that is.”
Of the accomplishments of his term to date, Susano points first to the office’s movement of its court records online, making it possible for attorneys and others who use its records to access them (for a subscription fee) without coming to the City County Building. That effort had started before Susano took office, but he oversaw its implementation.
On the other hand, he moved away from automation in a different area: answering the telephone.
“I wanted human beings to answer phones,” Susano said. “That’s been really important to us.”
Two years into his term, Susano confronted the COVID-19 pandemic. It significantly affected his office, because the court system essentially shut down. Even when it reopened, it remained at limited capacity for more than a year. That meant fewer cases being filed and heard, and fewer courtrooms to staff. One of the biggest impacts came from a federal freeze on evictions, among the most common suits filed in Susano’s office.
All of that meant a drastic dip in fees collected, which led Susano to take an unusual step — with the support of County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, he asked County Commission to extend a line of credit to his office so he could keep paying staff and keep the office open. As business picked back up, that loan has since been repaid in full.
“We never shut down,” Susano said, noting that even with reduced legal activity, the office still fielded a lot of queries from people concerned about ongoing lawsuits. “We did make ourselves available if someone really needed to speak person to person, that’s still our responsibility.”
Looking toward a second term, Susano has more improvements in mind. He agrees that the office should move to an e-filing system and said he has been working on it with the county’s information technology department. Initial steps toward it were stalled by the pandemic.
“We have begun to revisit in conjunction with county IT and Finance in the hopes of coming up with an in-house program that will be more easily serviceable as well as more fiscally conservative for the local taxpayers,” Susano said.
As for his own party affiliation, he acknowledges that it is different from that of his father, who was for years one of the most prominent local Democratic officeholders. But Susano said he doesn’t view the job as a partisan one.
“You have the opportunity to help people,” he said. “I’ve seen it as a tremendous honor.”