Election 2022: General Sessions Judge, Division I

Judge Chuck Cerny and Sarah Keith

Election 2022: General Sessions Judge, Division I

A Democratic former prosecutor is challenging a Republican incumbent who has served three terms on the Knox County bench.

by scott barker • July 12, 2022
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Judge Chuck Cerny and Sarah Keith
General Sessions Court Judge, Division I candidates Judge Chuck Cerny and Sarah Keith.

General Sessions Court judges are the utility infielders of the Knox County judicial system. 

General Sessions Court handles a wide variety of civil and criminal matters.

The five jurists in General Sessions Court handle a wide variety of criminal and civil cases — including felony hearings, misdemeanor hearings and trials, county ordinance violations, traffic violations, restraining orders, lawsuits up to $25,000, property recovery actions and more. 

General Sessions Court is also home to the county’s Recovery Court and Veterans Recovery Court, which provide treatment as an alternative for qualified defendants with substance abuse issues.

There are five divisions in General Sessions Court, each with its area of focus and each with a particular judge, though in practice the judges rotate through the divisions so that every judge hears all types of cases.

Two candidates are vying for an eight-year term in the Division I seat, longtime Republican incumbent Judge Chuck Cerny and Democratic former prosecutor Sarah Keith.

Both have backgrounds as prosecutors and they share the same general philosophical views of the judiciary. Neither faced a challenge in the May county primaries.

Cerny has the edge in experience on the bench, obviously — he was first elected in 1998 and has been reelected twice since then.

In a survey conducted earlier this year, more than 70 percent of Knoxville Bar Association members said they would recommend Cerny. Thirty percent said they would recommend Keith, but more than 55 percent of the responding attorneys said they didn’t know her.

But Keith is competitive in fundraising and actually had more cash on hand at the end of June — $23,575, compared to $20,108 for Cerny. The incumbent has already outspent her, however. Cerny spent $23,000 on his campaign last quarter, while Keith spent $3,712.

Here is a look at the two candidates.

Chuck Cerny

When he was an 18-year-old college freshman, shortly after registering to vote for the first time, Cerny was summoned for jury duty. He tried and failed to get out of serving.

“But then once I got there, it started to seem interesting,” he said recently over coffee at K Brew in West Knoxville. “Before long, I was hooked on serving on a jury and then after serving on a jury, I thought, oh my goodness, what lawyers do is really cool.” 

Becoming a lawyer seemed cool enough that when the Indianapolis native graduated from Purdue University in 1983, he headed to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee College of Law. Fast forward nearly four decades, and Cerny, now 61, is running for his fourth term on the bench. Asked what he’s learned during his 24 years as a judge, he becomes philosophical.

“I would be tempted to say (I’ve learned) all human beings who go through the criminal justice process — whether they are citizens accused or victims or officers or the lawyers associated with that process — are human beings and are entitled to the dignity associated with being human beings,” Cerny said. “But you know, I wouldn't say that that's something I've learned as a result of the process. I feel like that was part of my value system before being elected and I get reminded of it every single day.”

The broad range of cases that go through General Sessions Court demands that judges be nimble and adjust to constant change, he said.

“You find yourself in many, many scenarios,” Cerny said, adding that trial judges must make quick decisions in cases that affect the lives of the participants. “Experience and a moral compass is prerequisite.”

To make those decisions, he said, judges must stay abreast of changes in the law, which come in waves from the Tennessee General Assembly each year, as well as decisions of the Court of Appeals, Court of Criminal Appeals and the state Supreme Court.

“All Sessions judges are called upon to be law followers, not precedent creators,” he said.

To help promote continuing education, Cerny is a member of the state General Sessions Judges Conference Education Committee.

“All five of the Sessions judges work very hard,” he said. “Our continuing legal education is something that we pursue enthusiastically.”

Cerny said he is particularly proud of the work being done through the Recovery Courts administered by General Sessions Court. In the Recovery Court process, qualified defendants volunteer to receive treatment, either as part of a plea arrangement or after a conviction. The veterans program includes peer mentors, who Cerny calls rock stars, to help with recovery.

“First of all, it's not some kind of cushy soft-on-crime kind of deal,” he said. “Actually, a lot of times, folks going through Recovery Court or Veterans Treatment Court have more serious obligations than they would otherwise have than if they just simply went ahead and said, ‘Go ahead and let me do my time.’”

Cerny touts the low recidivism rate of people who go through the programs — around 20 percent for Recovery Court and just about 10 percent for the veterans program.

“Folks don't commit new offenses and they don't need to be incarcerated,” he said. “If they end up with no further criminal justice system involvement, it’s a win-win, and that's the scenario you're always looking for.” 

Cerny has been married for 30 years to his wife, Kimberly. They have a son and a daughter, and lost a daughter to leukemia in 1996 at age 18 months. That loss prompted the Cernys to help other families through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“All human beings experience the pain that comes from loss,” he said. “The only alternative is not to love people. That's not a viable alternative because loving others is something we're called upon to do in our faith systems and also it's just the right thing to do.”

Before becoming a judge, Cerny worked briefly in private practice and as a prosecutor in Hamilton and Knox counties. After 35 years in courtrooms and participating in tens of thousands of cases, he retains his idealism. 

“I'm here to uphold the law, protect people's rights, do the right thing and get the right result,” Cerny said. “That is something that's bigger than myself.” 

Sarah Keith

Public service rocked Keith’s cradle and nurtured her throughout her childhood in Helenwood, Tenn., a small community next to Huntsville in Scott County. 

Her father was longtime state Rep. Les Winningham. People would approach him or his wife, Peggy Jean, at the store or at ballfields or the school where he taught or anywhere else they happened to be to talk about their needs and those of the community.

 

“It was always just integrated in the fabric, woven through, and I saw how much it meant,” Keith said in an interview at Starbucks in downtown Knoxville. “It was a family thing.”

Winningham, who spent 26 years in the Legislature, died last month at age 81. Keith, the youngest of five daughters, carried on the family tradition of public service as a prosecutor in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office and hopes to continue as a General Sessions Court judge.

“I want to be the judge that I want to practice in front of,” Keith said. 

Keith, 41, earned an undergraduate degree at Tennessee Tech, where she was elected Student Government Association president, and her law degree from the University of Tennessee. She jokingly said people thought she was suited for the law because she liked to argue.

“I like to advocate for a position,” she said. “There is that pie in the sky — I wanted to help people. And if my ability to do that is taking a position and advocating for people who don't have that ability, that seems like a really great niche to get into.”

While in law school, Keith clerked in the Knox County DA’s Office. After graduating and passing the Bar exam in 2006, she worked a year in the 10th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office in Southeast Tennessee before returning to Knox County as a prosecutor.

Keith said she worked often in special units and frequently had to make split-second decisions about probable cause to obtain warrants and other investigative matters in high-pressure situations. No matter the circumstances, she said, prosecutors need to keep a loftier goal in mind.

“The ethical obligations of a prosecutor are not to just seek a conviction, it is to seek justice,” she said. “So there are times as a prosecutor where it's appropriate to zealously prosecute the case to take it forward to trial and advocate for that conviction and the consequences of that conviction, and there are times where the ethical obligation requires that that case be dismissed or not charged or amended to something else.”

Keith said her work as a prosecutor is perfect training for a trial judge.

“It's about looking at the facts and applying the law, regardless of what my personal opinion is,” she said.

Keith would like to expand the Recovery Court program to include defendants with mental health issues. Results wouldn’t be immediate, she said, but intervention and treatment would be a step in the right direction.

“We now have people who just kind of get caught in the system and it's a revolving door. We can't really address justice unless we're addressing mental health.” she said.

Keith has been married to Joseph Keith, who was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard, for 13 years. Asked why she decided to run for a judgeship at this point in her career, she said there’s no time like the present.

Keith originally intended to run for the General Sessions Court judgeship long held by Geoff Emory, but he retired before serving out his term and Judd Davis, a former colleague of Keith’s in the DA’s Office, was appointed to the post. She opted not to run against him this year and to take on Cerny instead.

Keith had to resign from the DA’s Office because of an internal rule that forbids prosecutors from running against sitting judges, and now is in private practice.

For Keith, fairness is the key to serving the public as a judge. Each person appearing in court believes his or her case is the most important one on the docket.

“They're there for their day in court and deserve to be heard and treated respectfully, professionally,” she said. “And that's what I want to strive to do. That no matter who you are, what your background is, when you walk out of the courtroom, you feel like you had a fair hearing, a fair shake.”