The fundamental question asked of Shelby County residents in the district attorney race was “What do you want justice to look like?”
With the election of Steve Mulroy, the answer, at its simplest, seems to be “different.”
Different than it has been for the last 11 years under Amy Weirich. Different than it was under her predecessor Bill Gibbons.
With a lead of more than 16,900 votes, Mulroy easily ousted Weirich 56%- 44%, according to unofficial results from the Shelby County Election Commission.
“It’s not just a win for me,” Mulroy said. “It’s a win for all the grassroots criminal justice reform groups that have been pushing for this kind of change for years, out on their own without any support, until we came in. It’s a win for the Democratic party. It’s a win for my campaign organization. … I’m the one that’s at the top but there’s so many people who made this possible.”
A professor of law at the University of Memphis, Mulroy campaigned with the message of reform. He touted his time as a federal prosecutor and with the Department of Justice and his experience as a Shelby County Commissioner as proof that he could make the criminal justice system fairer. He acknowledged the system’s racial and income-based inequities, called for reform of the bail system and said youth transfer to adult courts should be a last resort.
Weirich focused on her longtime theme of “pursuing the guilty and protecting the innocent” — the straightforward approach of law and order, crime and punishment. Reform for her means supporting the so-called “truth in sentencing” law which ensures those convicted of crimes serve full terms. Juvenile offenders who commit violent crimes don’t deserve the benefit of intervention programs as a first choice, she said, particularly if they’ve already been in the system.
Even before the results came in, those gathered at Mulroy’s headquarters at Poplar and Highland seemed to sense change was near. Supporters of all backgrounds — Black, brown, immigrant, lifelong Memphians, young, old, differently abled — talked happily over Aldo’s pizza, a full slate of catered food and an open bar. All seem excited, energetic and hopeful about the election. Supporters of Juvenile Court Judge candidate Tarik Sugarmon and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, both of whom also won Thursday, were there, too.
Later, at her more subdued event in an old store in the Carrefour at Kirby Woods shopping center in Germantown, where all but a few supporters were white, Weirich spoke of her legacy without conceding (although Mulroy took her words to mean she was). She called working at the Shelby County DA’s office “the honor of my life.” She hopes to be remembered as a “champion of victims” and spoke of the programs she created and her wish that they continue.
When it came to talking about the change that ends her tenure on Sept. 1, she returned to her signature theme.
“I hope that change never ever, ever forgets the victims … when a lot of people talk about reform they tend to forget the victims of the crime and what they’re simply meaning is release,” she said. “I hope that if there is change, leadership of the DA’s office never forgets the victims of crime.”
Weirich said she didn’t know how Mulroy would handle being DA. “It’s hard to say considering he’s never done anything close to this job … I hope he listens and learns from our incredible staff.”
Back at his headquarters, Mulroy called Weirich a “dedicated public servant” with a vision different from his, and extended an olive branch to her supporters. “There is a way for us to work together for criminal justice reform, a way for us to have both justice and safety,” he said.
“I suspect it will not be as terrifying as they think right now. I hope to earn their trust and respect in the months ahead.”
Sugarmon wins Juvenile Court judge race
In another closely watched race, voters chose municipal court judge Tarik Sugarmon to lead Shelby County Juvenile Court, making him the county’s first Black person to lead a court that has a documented pattern of discriminating against Black children.
Sugarmon beat Michael, who took office in 2014, by more than 12,500 votes, 44%-34%.
The Shelby County Juvenile Court judge runs a $13 million operation that handles the cases of children who have been accused of criminal offenses. The judge appoints the magistrates who hear many of the cases, sets punishments and decides which cases to transfer to the adult criminal justice system when the District Attorney requests such a transfer. And, like all judicial races in Tennessee, they are only elected once every eight years.
While the Juvenile Court judge race is officially nonpartisan, Sugarmon, who challenged Michael in 2014, was regarded as the Democratic choice and Michael as the Republican pick.
At the Poplar Plaza shopping center that served as Mulroy’s campaign headquarters, Sugarmon’s supporters mingled with supporters of Mulroy and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, who handily beat Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan to win a second term.
Sugarmon’s win signals a new day for the court, which has been scrutinized closely since 2009 when the Department of Justice launched an investigation into Juvenile Court.
In 2012, the DOJ found that the Juvenile Court violated children’s constitutional rights, including their right to due process, equal protection and protection from harm. The DOJ and the court entered into a memorandum of agreement and federal monitors observed the court until 2018.
With President Donald Trump’s election though, Republican county officials – including Weirich and then-county mayor Mark Luttrell – petitioned then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the court’s 2012 agreement to overhaul its practices, even though the court was not in full compliance with more than a third of the agreement’s 94 provisions.
Michael, who is sometimes pictured wearing a bolo tie and a cowboy hat, made no secret of his disdain for federal intervention. Those monitors noted significant progress under Michael, but also major lingering issues, especially with the equal protection violation. Michael has long denied any racial bias within his court.
Local experts, including youth who have had contact with Juvenile Court, also criticized Michael for transferring kids to adult court far more often than his counterparts in Tennessee’s other large cities.
On the campaign trail, Sugarmon promised to transfer fewer children to adult court and request that the DOJ resume its oversight of Juvenile Court, as the consortium has recommended. And he said he’ll decrease the number of kids who appear before the Juvenile Judge by expanding existing diversion programs and providing therapy to children after initial offenses.
Incumbents sweep General Sessions Civil Court races
Voters decided to stick with the six judges who currently handle evictions in Shelby County.
General Sessions Civil Court judges Lynn Cobb, Phyllis Gardner, Danielle Mitchell Sims, Deborah Henderson, Betty Thomas Moore and Lonnie Thompson all easily won re-election to eight-year terms. Gardner ran unopposed.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism recently observed stark differences in how the six judges handle eviction cases, while watching hearings over the course of three weeks.
Most of the judges didn’t spend much time explaining how the proceedings work. And half — Cobb, Thompson and Gardner — didn’t refer any tenants to the local Emergency Rental Assistance program, which has millions of dollars to help people at risk of losing their homes.
Cobb said these referrals aren’t necessary; Thompson questioned whether doing so would unfairly favor tenants; and Gardner said she frequently tells people about the funds, but it depends on the tenant.
Term limits for city officials fails
Also, on Thursday, Memphis voters resoundingly rejected, 66% to 34%, a term limits referendum that would have allowed Memphis City Council members and the mayor to serve three consecutive terms. Currently, the city charter limits the officeholders to two consecutive terms.
This marks the second time an attempt to lengthen term limits has failed; voters handily rejected a similar amendment in 2018. In 2008, voters amended the city charter to limit city elected officials to two terms.
In a Memphis Flyer column, local attorney Bryce Ashby called the ballot measure a “referendum on arrogance.” Other critics argued that changing the limits was little more than a power grab by sitting officials.
Backers of the referendum – the most vocal of whom are current city council members who could stay in office if the referendum passes – argue that voters deserve the opportunity to vote for veteran elected officials.
Wrote Memphis City Council member Jeff Warren in the Memphis Flyer: “Experience handling emergency situations is an important point to consider as our world continues to deal with the immediate and long-term fallout of the pandemic. Facing inflation, a looming recession, and political instability overseas, I believe we will need the steady hand of leadership shown by Mayor Jim Strickland and my colleagues on the council.”
For the most up-to-date election results, visit the Shelby County Election Commission’s website.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland initially said he would not seek a third term if the city charter were amended. Before the term limits referendum measure was added to the ballot, Strickland declined to say whether he would seek a third term. After the measure was added, he announced he would seek a third term.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at email@example.com
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
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas contributed to this report.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.