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Davenport fallout | lawmakers consider reforms to prevent future judicial misconduct

State lawmakers say judge's retirement is a positive development, but more must be done to reform the system.
Credit: Ken Anderson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Monday, Jan. 17, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, filed legislation that would authorize the Tennessee General Assembly to remove Donna Scott Davenport from the office of Juvenile Court Judge of Rutherford County. The next day, Davenport released a statement saying she planned to retire, reversing a previously announced decision to seek reelection.

“It should have never come to a point where the legislature had to consider the drastic measure of removing a sitting judge, but we are nonetheless taking a step forward for Tennessee,” Campbell said. “The illegal and irresponsible actions of this judge have scarred hundreds of children and cost Rutherford County taxpayers millions of dollars.”

The ouster resolution came just a month after a federal judge approved a settlement of about $6 million to the families of hundreds of young people who were illegally arrested and jailed by the Rutherford County juvenile justice system over a decade.

In the fallout of this news, Johnson says more must be done to reform the systems that allowed Davenport’s illegal actions to continue for years unchecked. Changes could include more stringent reporting and enhanced state oversight.

RELATED: Rutherford County Judge accused of jailing Black children under fake law

“This news is long overdue for the families and children who have been harmed by Davenport,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, the safeguards meant to protect the rights of Tennesseans against extreme judicial misconduct are not working. So as we look forward, our goal as lawmakers should be to improve oversight and make sure this never happens again.”

According to reports from ProPublica and WPLN, Davenport has jailed Black children at a disproportionately high rate compared to the rest of the state and the racial disparity has gotten worse over time.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said Davenport’s retirement creates an opportunity to restore trust between the courts and public.

“Rutherford County has the opportunity to restore some broken trust between its citizens and the juvenile justice system,” Rep. Clemmons said. “No matter who you are or where you live, our courts should be applying the law fairly and uniformly.”

In October, Gov. Bill Lee’s office said the Board of Judicial Conduct should review Davenport’s record.

RELATED: Two Shelby County men among 17 offenders granted clemency by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee