Primary 2023: Municipal Judge

Headshots of the four judge candidates

Primary 2023: Municipal Judge

A trio of challengers seek to deny incumbent John Rosson a 10th term heading up City Court.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 24, 2023

Headshots of the four judge candidates

Municipal Judge candidates, clockwise from top left: Andrew Beamer, Tyler Caviness, Mary Ward and incumbent John Rosson.

Knoxville City Court does not usually generate a lot of attention, political or otherwise. That is different this year.

Rosson has served since 1986. His opponents say that's long enough. He disagrees.

The court handles misdemeanor violations of city laws and codes, including parking and speeding tickets, underage beer consumption, and dirty lot complaints. It recently moved into a new location in the city’s Public Safety Complex on the old St. Mary’s Hospital campus in North Knoxville.

The court is overseen by a nonpartisan elected municipal judge who serves in a part-time capacity. The salary is currently set at $92,000 a year.

Since 1986, the position has been synonymous with one name: Judge John R. Rosson, who was appointed to fill an uncompleted term and has since been reelected to nine four-year terms. He has only ever faced opposition twice, and won easily both times.

But this year, as the 75-year-old Rosson seeks a 10th term, his path to reelection is not so smooth. He has three challengers, all of them local attorneys seeking to bring a new face to the bench for the first time since the Reagan era: Andrew Beamer, Tyler Caviness and Mary Ward.

If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the Aug. 29 primary, he or she will be declared the winner and will not have opposition on the November general election ballot. If not, the top two finishers will go on to the general election. 

Rosson leads the overall fundraising, flexing his incumbent status to draw $44,275 in donations during the first half of the year. He had $18,144 on hand as of July 1. But Caviness slightly outraised him in the second quarter, bringing in $21,331, with $15,697 on hand. Ward and Beamer lagged behind, having raised $4,093 and $2,570 respectively.

In the Knoxville Bar Association’s survey of its members asking them to rate the candidates, Rosson ranked at the top with 51 percent of respondents saying they “strongly recommend” him for the position and another 24 percent saying they “recommend” him. Only 18 percent ranked him as either “do not recommend” or “strongly do not recommend.”

The three challengers appeared to suffer mostly from unfamiliarity, with majorities of respondents saying they didn’t know enough about any of them to rate them. Caviness had “recommend” or “strongly recommend” ratings from 30 percent, and “do not recommend” or “strongly do not recommend” from 15 percent.

Ward was rated “recommend” or “strongly recommend” by 18 percent and “do not recommend” or “strongly do not recommend” by 27 percent. Beamer had “recommend”/”strongly recommend” ratings from 12 percent of respondents, and “do not/strongly do not recommend” from 22 percent.

There will be a public forum with the four candidates at 6:30 p.m. this evening at Messiah Lutheran Church, 6900 Kingston Pike. Compass co-founder Scott Barker will moderate. 

Here is a look at the contenders, starting with the incumbent.

John R. Rosson

Rosson was born and raised in Ashland, Ky., and graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree. After military service with the National Guard, he came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee Law School. He has been here ever since.

After going into private practice in the 1970s, Rosson got to know other members of the local legal community — among them attorney Allen Elliott, who was then serving as the municipal court judge. They had offices in the same building on Main Street and often went to lunch together.

“We’d go over to eat and we’d talk about cases,” Rosson said. “I ended up working on a few cases with him. When he got sick, he and his assistant asked me to sit in for him (in court).”

When Elliott died of cancer in 1986, Rosson — then 39 — applied to finish the last year of his term. “I enjoyed the job as a part-time job, I enjoyed working with the public, I enjoyed working with the clerks, working with the police,” he said.

City Council named him to the post. He ran for reelection in 1987 and won, as he has done every four years since.

Rosson said much about the function of the court has changed in the 37 years he has run it. He instituted night court sessions, which currently meet twice a week, to make it more accessible for people who work during the day.

Technology has made it easier for people to pay tickets and fines online, and has also brought new tools like police dashboard and body cameras that provide granular detail of many incidents and interactions.

“We've installed this huge big-screen high-definition television on the wall in the courtroom,” Rosson said. 

For the growing number of immigrants and non-English speakers Rosson sees in court — most without legal representation, since few people hire attorneys for city citations — translation services are now available instantly via speaker phone. He also has a full-time staff member fluent in Spanish, the most common non-English language in the courtroom.

Overall, he said, his aim is to make everyone who enters the courtroom feel respected and heard, even if they’re not always happy with the outcomes.

“My goal for everybody when they walk out of there, I’d like them to think they were treated honestly, fairly, with integrity, and the law was followed and they had their chance to say whatever they want to say,” Rosson said.

He has continued in private practice as an attorney throughout his years on the bench, mostly handling personal injury cases.

Rosson recently received a ticket for a moving violation himself, in an incident that was circulated anonymously via a copy of the citation just as this election season was getting underway. The judge explained that he was stuck in traffic on I-840 south of Nashville and had an urgent need to use a restroom. He tried to cautiously drive up the wrong way on an interstate entrance ramp, but was spotted and ticketed by an officer. Rosson called the episode “embarrassing,” but said he had not had any alcohol to drink that evening and was not driving under the influence.

Another extrajudicial outing that has been raised by some critics is Rosson’s introduction of speakers at a 2015 rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Rosson told the News Sentinel that he didn’t intend his appearance to be seen as a political endorsement, and that a photo of himself with Trump from the rally was just a keepsake, one of many such pictures he has with notable people.

The biggest knock against him, however — repeated in some form by all three challengers — is simply that he has been doing the job long enough and it’s time for some fresh blood. Rosson said he understands that perspective, but he simply disagrees. 

“I guess my first response is the often used phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’” he said. “I’ve been doing this a while, and I don’t think it’s broken by any stretch. I feel like I’m quite capable of doing the job.”

He added, “I have a record I’m running on, and I think it’s a good record. If people asked people who have been there (in City Court), I think most of them would say, ‘Yeah, I was treated very nicely and fairly.’”

Andrew Beamer

Beamer, who is 38, is not originally from Knoxville but he is still following in family footsteps here. His grandfather was a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, his father was born in Knoxville, and his uncle Rufus lived and worked as an attorney here all his life.

Beamer himself grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Blacksburg, Va., on a centuries-old family farm. He earned an undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and then a law degree in Florida. He graduated in 2009, at the depths of the recession, and called his uncle in Knoxville for advice on starting out in the legal profession.

“He kind of guided me,” Beamer said. “Really, he kind of said, ‘Come here and I'll show you how,’ and so I've been here ever since.”

As a solo practitioner, he handles a range of different clients, including family law, civil litigation, employment discrimination, and traffic cases that have brought him into Knoxville City Court. He also does appointed juvenile defense work in Blount County.

“In private practice, you kind of find yourself sometimes in these spots where you get waves,” Beamer said. “Like all of a sudden, you're just doing a lot in this one spot, like ‘I’ve done 10 of these cases in the past month.’”

He said he likes that Municipal Court deals with “everyday” issues that affect many people’s lives.

“It's probably a court that has more interaction with individuals than I would say almost any court,” Beamer said. “The most I've dealt with it has been (representing clients) on things like reckless driving, no insurance, those type of things.”

He said several things about the municipal judge position appeal to him. He likes that it’s part-time, which would allow him to maintain his own practice. He’s not bothered by the night court hours, and he said he’s glad it’s a position that can help people work through problems but is not freighted with the life-and-death stakes of felony criminal courts.

“It seemed like the right time,” he said of his decision to run. “I’ve been a lawyer long enough, I feel like I have the experience necessary.”

Beamer touted his temperament as well-suited to dealing with defendants who might be confused or anxious about the court process.

“You always treat people the way you want to be treated, and I try to do that with everybody,” he said. “At the end of the day, everyone has to walk out of court, everyone's part of society, and you should be treating everyone with the dignity and respect that you would expect someone to treat you with.”

Beamer said a particular concern he’d like to address is finding ways to help people who are at risk of losing their driver’s licenses because of unpaid court costs.

“One thing I do really want to focus on is trying to fix that, as much as we can within the powers of the judiciary,” he said. “What I really would like to do is create a special day, maybe once a month or something, where people with those issues could come to court and we could try to figure out ways to fix that issue.”

As for the incumbent, Beamer said that he thinks Rosson has been “a positive influence” on the court. But, he said, “The city is changing demographically. And just at some level I'm kind of pro-change in general. I think that a change could be beneficial to the city.”

Tyler Caviness

At 31, Caviness is the youngest of the contenders, just clearing the required age of 30 set in city code. But he says that he has packed a range of experiences into his legal career to date that positions him well for the job.

“​​I would pit my experience against anybody else in the race in terms of the diversity of legal minds that I've had the opportunity to work for,” he said. “I don’t feel in any way left behind because of my age or my experience.”

He grew up in Nashville and was a high school lacrosse star, which led to an athletic scholarship at Tennessee Wesleyan University. After graduating with a degree in English — “Because I already knew how to speak English,” he jokes — he cast about for options. Nobody in his family had a legal background, but a college friend came from a family of lawyers and was headed to law school at UT.

On a visit, Caviness was impressed that then-UT Law Dean Doug Blaze talked with him for an hour and answered questions about affordability and career pathways.

“That experience was certainly consistent with the sense of community I felt the whole time I was in law school,” he said. 

Particularly influential for him was working as a student in the school’s free legal clinic. It introduced Caviness to the ways lawyers can make a difference for clients in difficult circumstances — and it also introduced him to his future wife, a fellow student working in the wrongful convictions clinic.

“The first assignment I had was six weeks after I started as a second-year law student, we had a brief due to the Tennessee Supreme Court based on newly discovered evidence in a murder conviction,” he said.

The work in the clinic fueled his interest after graduation in working for the Knox County Public Defender’s Office, under former Public Defender Mark Stephens. Caviness spent two and a half years there and then left to go into private practice, first with other attorneys — including Stephens — and then on his own.

“All of the experiences I've had have been with some of the best people I feel like to learn from,” he said, citing Stephens as well as attorneys Marcos Garza and Stephen Ross Johnson. 

He said he has also learned from his clients, many of whom have come from traumatic backgrounds.

“But for a half dozen things in my life, the whole trajectory of my life could have been so different,” Caviness said. “Any idea that someone might have that you're so different from this person or that person, I would challenge them to have to experience some of the terrible traumatic things, the setbacks that that person went through.”

He said he wants to bring that same perspective to City Court, which despite its low-level cases can have significant impacts on people’s lives.

“I started thinking about, how can the court be more community-focused?” he said. “How can we, how can we make it a more accessible court for people? How can we be more efficient, how can we be more technologically friendly?”

Among other things, he said that as a judge assessing penalties or court costs, he would want to take people’s ability to pay into account. He said too many people end up with fines or fees they simply can’t pay, which then puts them at danger of losing their driver’s licenses or other repercussions.

“That's not to say that there's not going to be consequences and there are not going to be punishments in City Court if you're poor,” Caviness said. “But what we are saying is, we're not going to punish you more because you're poor. That's the impact of something like that, is criminalizing poverty more than the act itself.”

Mary Ward

Mary Ward is the only woman in the race — and, she notes, if elected she would be one of the few women on the bench in East Tennessee.

“Females are very underrepresented in terms of our judicial area, with no good reason,” said Ward, who is 56. “There are a lot of very, very qualified females that would more than handle any kind of judicial job that is out there.”

And she is one of them, she said. Ward brings both professional and personal experience that she said sets her apart from the other candidates. She grew up in Augusta, Ga., and attended college and law school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. 

She married a fellow lawyer in Georgia, who happened to be from Knoxville, and after 10 years the two of them moved here together. They had three children, and after a divorce Ward said she ended up primarily raising them by herself. All three graduated from UT.

She supported the family with her legal work, which over the years has included time as a prosecutor in Georgia and, since 2006, as a solo practitioner handling both criminal and civil cases. Ward said she considers herself a trial lawyer and has taken more than 100 cases into the courtroom over the years.

That includes in City Court, where she has represented clients on traffic violations. Ward said she has a lot of respect for Rosson, but she added, “He’s also been on the bench since 1987.”

As a self-described Democrat and a woman, Ward said she thinks she would be more representative of the people of Knoxville — a city that tends to vote Democratic and has become increasingly diverse in many ways.

“Folks that live in the city are much more progressive, in my mind, than the folks that live in the county,” she said. “It’s more a hodge-podge of different kinds of folks.”

Among the initiatives she said she would like to start would be a special court to deal with underage drinking cases. Ward envisions something similar to the county’s drug court for defendants with addiction and substance abuse issues.

“A fine is not what they need,” she said of young alcohol offenders. “They need help. They need a lot more than what we are offering.”

Ward also said the court needs to improve its customer service and accessibility.

“A lot of people who come (to the court) do not have attorneys, are pretty unsophisticated in terms of knowing how to jump through the hoops,” she said. “I think that it just needs to be a little bit more user-friendly.”

She applauded the city for investing in the new City Court facility and said that it was a good time to work on expanding its services overall.

“I think just the sheer size of the Municipal Court, hopefully they will be in a position where more people can be hired,” Ward said. “And I think that the judge needs to be able to work very closely with the other leaders in the city and be an advocate for what the court needs. Somebody’s got to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is what we need in terms of resources.’”

As for why she decided to run in what has turned out to be a crowded field, Ward said she is just at a good point in her life to take it on.

“My children are all grown now,” she said. “My focus has been able to shift a little bit from a family that I’ve raised. It feels like I have time to do it.”