A new bill in the Tennessee state legislature seeks to remove Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge. That’s after reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica detailed how the county’s justice system was illegally arresting and jailing children.
Since 2000, Judge Donna Scott Davenport has overseen the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, where the county jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court — compared with the statewide average of 5%. Now, state Sen. Heidi Campbell and state Rep. Gloria Johnson have said they are proposing legislation that could result in Davenport’s ouster. A bill starting the process was filed in the state Senate Friday.
In Tennessee, state lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when children can be locked up prior to a delinquency hearing. But from 2008 to 2017, Rutherford County’s juvenile jail instituted its own system, called a “filter system,” under which any child deemed a “TRUE threat” could be detained. The jail’s written procedures never defined what a “TRUE threat” was. Davenport appointed the jail’s director, who also reports to her. In 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to put a stop to the filter system’s use.
“While judges are given judicial discretion to interpret laws, they are not allowed to make up their own laws,” Campbell said in a press conference on Monday.
State Rep. Vincent Dixie said at the press conference: “This is a slap in the face to us as legislators, because she made a policy into a law. And if you can do that, if anybody can do that, then why are we even in office?”
State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, former chair of Tennessee’s Black Caucus, highlighted the racial disparities among incarcerated children in Rutherford County during the press conference. Reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica found that Black children are not only jailed at a disproportionately high rate, but that the disparity is getting worse.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Gilmore, said they’re concerned that the issues in the county are systemic.
“The people who are in charge have failed the children, and they’re still in charge,” Gilmore said.
Johnson said Davenport exercised an “appalling abuse of power.” She added, “How can we keep a judge in place who sees herself as carrying out God’s mission, rather than carrying out the laws of this state?”
The attempted ouster is considered an extreme measure.
Under Tennessee’s constitution, a judge can be removed only upon a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers. A state report and news clips turn up only two instances of that happening in the last half century — once for a judge convicted of sexual assault, and once for a judge convicted of perjury and obstructing justice.
Campbell said if the resolution passes, a joint legislative committee would be formed with the power to subpoena witnesses. It would file a report to the state House and Senate, which would then vote separately on whether to remove the judge.
Voters selected Davenport as Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge after the county established it as an elected position in 2000; she has been the only person to hold the job thus far. In her last reelection bid, in 2014, she ran as a Republican.
Multiple Democratic lawmakers said Davenport’s removal isn’t a partisan issue. Campbell pointed to how Tennessee’s Republican governor has called for a review of Davenport. Eleven members of Congress, all Democrats, have also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation of the county’s juvenile justice system.
In Tennessee, a similar measure to remove a judge was introduced in 2020 by a Republican representative. The judge had ordered increased access to absentee ballots during the August primary elections. The effort to oust her failed, but the judge has since announced she will not seek reelection.
Nashville Public Radio reached out to Davenport for comment and has not received a response. She has previously declined to respond to questions from the news organizations.