As the August 4 election nears, two upcoming forums will allow voters to hear from candidates vying for the top spots in Shelby County’s criminal and civil courts.
Local alumni chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. are hosting a Criminal Justice Reform Forum on Saturday. The Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis is hosting a similar forum focusing on the district attorney candidates on Monday.
The current Shelby County District Attorney, Republican Amy Weirich, who is up for re-election, and her opposition, Democrat Steve Mulroy, will appear at both events. Saturday’s event will also include candidates for county mayor, juvenile court judge and criminal court judge.
These elected positions – judges, clerks, sheriffs and district attorneys – hold substantial power in the county’s legal system. The upcoming election sets the stage for what the criminal and civil court system will look and feel like in Memphis for the next several years.
On election day, Memphians will encounter a pages-long ballot in the combined county general and state/federal primary election. This, along with the role of each position and each candidate’s stance on key issues, can be overwhelming to navigate and understand. The forums act as a space where residents – and candidates – can ask and answer questions.
Barbara Beaver, a member of the AKAs’ Beta Epsilon Omega chapter, is helping organize Saturday’s forum and said a desire to increase participation and education around how local government operates are driving forces behind the event.
Attend or livestream the forums
The Power of 08: Criminal Justice Reform Forum
10 a.m. June 25, St. Paul Baptist Church, 2124 Holmes Road
Attendees are encouraged to pre-register.
Shelby County District Attorney Candidate Forum
6:30 p.m. June 27, St. Andrew AME Church, 567 S. Parkway East
Attendees are encouraged to submit questions.
“What makes me a little nervous about the upcoming election is the low voter turnout. We are really trying to work hard to educate people about why they need to vote,” Beaver said. “For example, the DA’s race. I don’t know that we realize just how much power the district attorney has.”
The Shelby County Election Commission reported over 570,000 registered voters in the August 2020 County General and State/Federal Primary Election. Of that number, just 19% of voters cast their ballot in the election, according to the election commission. Shelby County’s population is over 920,000.
A district attorney represents the state in criminal court and prosecutes cases, according to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. As Beaver described it: “They decide who goes to jail. They decide who does not.”
In Tennessee, district attorneys serve eight years, the longest terms for elected prosecutors in the nation, which can insulate them from making partisan decisions in individual cases but can also hinder communities’ abilities to hold them accountable, experts say.
Byron Moore, vice-chair of the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis and senior pastor of St. Andrew AME Church, said they’re hosting Monday’s election forum not only for the voters but for the candidates to see and understand the communities they represent.
“When persons only come before you in a courtroom, you may not respect the humanity of an individual because when they come before you, they’re a defendant or a plaintiff. We want [elected officials] to see them as people,” Moore said.
Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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