(WBIR - Knoxville) Clarence "Eddie" Pridemore presided as chancellor of Knox County chancery court for the first time Wednesday morning. The newly-elected judge came into his first day on the bench with a great deal of prejudgment from the Knox County legal community over his lack of experience.
Pridemore says he is prepared to prove himself. He also hopes to prove his critics wrong.
"I know how courtroom procedure operates and how the courtroom operates more than a lot of lawyers," said Pridemore. "Chancellor is a really broad court. It deals with divorces, adoptions, contract disputes. I tell people it's like a sponge almost. It soaks up all the different cases no one else wants to hear."
Many Knoxville leaders from both political parties said Pridemore has not soaked up enough legal experience to qualify him for his new job. Pridemore graduated from law school in 2010, began practicing law in 2011, and has never represented a client in chancery court.
"Most lawyers that become judges typically have somewhere between 20 to 30 years experience practicing in the field for which they become a judge," said Knoxville attorney Don Bosch. "The chancery court is one of the most complex and complicated courts in Tennessee. He may end up being a great judge, but it's a frightening prospect to turn the reigns over of a high performance car to a 16-year-old driver. Partisan politics, not knowledge of the system, played the largest role in his election as the new chancellor."
Pridemore scored an upset victory in the August election over 16-year-chancellor Daryl Fansler. Fansler, a democrat, was widely supported by Knox County's republican leadership. A strong turnout by republicans who voted along party lines propelled Pridemore to the helm of "Chancery Court Part II."
Pridemore's own campaign website gets the name of the position he ran for incorrect. The website says, "Pridemore for Chancellor Div 2" when the large sign outside the courtroom and the ballot read "Chancery Court Part II." Some non-Chancery courtrooms are organized by divisions. It may be a minor mistake, but it illustrates why some express concern when the job of chancellor requires great attention to language and detail.
"I don't care who it is. I think any lawyer should be concerned if your jurist has three years experience and has never appeared in the court over which they are now presiding. Is he going to get the decisions correct? Are we going to spend a lot of time and money having to deal with appeals to improper rulings? This is incredibly important to know you have a qualified jurist, especially when you are the one whose life is impacted by their decisions," said Bosch.
One of Pridemore's first decisions resulted in a legal fight when he rejected a routine "Rule 30" request by journalists to bring cameras into his courtroom. WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper teamed up and hired legal representation to challenge Pridemore's decision.
Knoxville attorney Rick Hollow, on behalf of the two media outlets, filed an objection on Tuesday that said Pridemore did not follow the requirements to reject the Rule 30 request. Hollow noted Pridemore did not sign the order or issue it himself. He also did not hold an evidentiary hearing which is required to prove why his objection is valid.
"All we were saying is that whatever you do – do please follow the law," Hollow said.
On Wednesday morning, the new chancellor ultimately avoided a legal battle by changing his mind and allowing cameras to capture his first day on the bench. A signed order was taped on the door of Pridemore's courtroom saying cameras are now allowed, but did not say why he reversed his decision.
Pridemore is well aware of the criticisms, but says he is ready to become the picture of a prepared chancellor who is proficient at performing the job.
"You get people to support you by running an efficient courtroom, an efficient justice, and don't get behind. People who come to court don't want to wait a year to have a case decided or wait two years to get a divorce," said Pridemore. "Like I said, it's more than reading law. It's the ability to deal with people. And I'll be 40 years old next month. And I spent 22 years dealing with people. I've dealt with people as a lawyer going on four years, dealt with people in sales, dealt with people working in real estate, and dealt with judges on a daily basis for many years."
Pridemore's election could end up changing the rules for who can run for judge. State representative Ryan Haynes, a republican, says he is researching possible legislation that would require someone to have at least five years of experience practicing law in order to be a candidate for judge.
Current requirements to serve as chancellor say candidates must be a licensed attorney, be 30 years old, have five years residency in Tennessee, and one year in the judicial district or county.
The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts also provides a four-day "judicial academy" for newly elected judges, which Pridemore attended.